London, England - Tension rose at the UK Parliament when game developer Epic Games and publisher Electronic Arts (EA) defended the use of loot boxes earlier this week.
The Parliament became interested in the discussion on the ethicality of loot boxes in games when several parties started expressing growing concerns about these loot boxes--along with microtransactions--being akin to gambling. Loot boxes are virtual packages containing random items such as weapons and costumes, which players need to purchase, whereas microtransactions involve paying a small fee for certain in-game items.
A study conducted by York St. John University and the University of York also added credence to the expressed concerns, as it reached the conclusion that there is a strong link between problem gambling and spending on loot boxes. The study also recommended that loot box buying be made available only to players aged 18 years and above.
And it’s not just the UK that has gotten involved in the loot box debate. Several states in the USA have already started investigating the matter, and regulators and gambling commissions all over the world have followed suit. Belgium has recently gone so far as to declare loot boxes illegal and order their removal from all video games.
At the UK Parliament hearing, EA Vice President of Legal and Government Affairs Kerry Hopkins defended the availability of loot boxes for under-18 players, saying they are similar to fun products like Hatchimals, Kinder Eggs, and LOL Surprise. “We do think the way that we have implemented these kinds of mechanics--and FIFA, of course, is our big one, our FIFA Ultimate Team and our packs--is actually quite ethical and fun, enjoyable to people,” Kerry said.
She also pointed out that both the Australian Gambling Commission and the UK Gambling Commission have concluded that loot boxes, which EA calls “surprise mechanics”, aren’t a form of gambling, and they agree with this. She further said they disagree with the research from York last year. “We think it’s like many other products people enjoy in a very healthy way,” she added.
Speaking during their latest financial call, EA CEO Andrew Wilson also defended loot boxes, saying: “We don’t believe that FIFA Ultimate Team or loot boxes are gambling...We don’t provide or authorise any way to cash out digital items or virtual currency for real-world money. And there’s no real-world value assigned to in-game items.”
Regardless of how ardently they defend loot boxes, however, there are still people like gaming journalist Ryan Brown who disagree. Speaking to BBC, Brown said: “You open a Kinder Egg and you expect a toy--and you get a toy. With a loot box, you’re hoping for something special. It is a lot more than just a throwaway toy. It’s something people aspire to have.” Brown goes on to describe the debate about the place of loot boxes in games as “toxic”.
At present, loot boxes are not considered gambling in the UK if players have the opportunity to earn the items found in them via the gameplay itself. If new regulations are put in place, it won’t matter how much EA insists that loot boxes are not gambling; they will have to play by the rules.