And here we are again. This morning ex-BBC chief Lord Grade appeared on BBC Breakfast to call for urgent action against loot box mechanics, as part of a report produced by the cross-party House of Lords Gambling Committee.
Of course, we’ve heard this all before, and as usual the attack comes with a strong moral argument about the evils of gambling alongside the usual ‘won’t anyone think of the children’ schtick. It sums up its feelings with the line: “If a product looks like gambling and feels like gambling, it should be regulated as gambling.”
Which of course begs the question of why football stickers and Pokemon cards are still being sold, entirely unregulated, to children across the country? The answer of course, is that the committee is more interested in anything that makes money (and so headlines) and more fearful of technologies that it doesn’t fully understand.
“The government must act immediately to bring loot boxes within the remit of gambling legislation and regulation,” said the report on gambling harms, which you can find in full here. Of the 200-odd page document only a handful are given over to games understandably, and the contents will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the story in recent years.
Research is largely drawn from the work of Dr David Zendle, who relates loot boxes to gambling in a number of ways, but the report does note that “Dr Zendle also emphasised that the research does not show that loot boxes are a gateway into gambling, just that the two coincide.”
So what’s the likelihood of the government taking action against loot boxes as part of a wider bill against gambling? Well that probably depends on whether there’s a public outcry against such mechanics, which itself is mitigated by the industry’s move away from loot boxes over the last year – the standout remnant in terms of popularity being EA’s FIFA.
It’s also unclear on where the line would be drawn, would any random elements in games have to be removed, what about random elements in ‘full games’ as opposed to as microtransactions? Legislation rarely understand the nuances of the medium its restricting.
Piers Harding-Rolls, an industry analyst noted on Twitter that “This ‘urgent’ move by the House of Lords Gambling Committee appears out of step with 8th June DCMS call for evidence into the impact of loot boxes on in-game spending and gambling-like behaviour for later in 2020. Why are they publishing this now?”
To which the answer is probably as simple as The Lords and The Commons not always being the most joined-up of thinkers – no bad thing some of the time, as too much collusion in such research and reports might undermine the point of a second house, but that’s a far bigger argument.
The next step in terms of process is to see what the DCMS turns up in its call for evidence, and then whether the government decides to bring something forward. Alternatively, a private member’s bill could be tabled (there’s plenty who would like the attention of a high-profile crusade such as this) at the start of the next session (towards the end of the year) and then the media gets behind it and pushes the government into action.
Ukie commented on the report: “The majority of people in the UK play video games in one form or another, so we take these concerns seriously. We’ve worked hard to increase the use of family controls on consoles which can turn off or limit spending and we will be working closely with the DCMS during its review of the Gambling Act later this year,” commented Dr Jo Twist OBE, CEO of Ukie.
Now, we’re not huge fans of the loot box mechanic, but our gut feeling is that this is just an angle to continue the decades-old attacks of those in power against populist forms of media – blaming society’s problems on TV, video tapes and games… and not on inequality and a lack of opportunity. Let’s just remember that it was government which unleashed the scourge of FOBT betting machines on high streets, so legislation doesn’t always mean better protection for the vulnerable.
Our concern is that when government starts legislating games, when will it stop? We’d much rather that good education of parents, and consumer choice, drive market trends and not legislation.
In short, be careful what you wish for.