Given that 2017's Star Wars Battlefront II is broadly considered the tipping point in an anti-loot-box conversation that has recently led to a loot box bill in the United States senate, you might be forgiven for thinking that Electronics Arts games have loot boxes.
Not so, says its VP of legal and government affairs; they merely have “surprise mechanics.” And they’re “quite ethical.” Phew!
Scottish National Party MP Brendan O’Hara said that evidence suggests a “close” link between loot boxes and gambling, especially among adolescents. He then asked Hopkins, as well as a representative of Epic Games, who was also in attendance to talk about Fortnite, if they considered loot boxes to be an “ethical” feature.
“We don’t call them loot boxes,” Hopkins began her response, adding that EA instead refers to them as “surprise mechanics.”
She then elaborated on what exactly that means and why so-called “surprise mechanics” are just like blind-packed toys. “If you go to—I don’t know what your version of Target is—a store that sells lots of toys, and you do a search for surprise toys, what you’ll find is that this is something people enjoy. They enjoy surprises.
And so, it’s something that’s been part of toys for years, whether it’s Kinder Eggs, or Hatchimals, or LOL Surprise. We do think the way that we have implemented these kinds of mechanics in FIFA—[which] of course is our big one, our FIFA Ultimate Team and our packs—is actually quite ethical and quite fun. Enjoyable to people.”
She also said that EA does not consider loot boxes—sorry, “surprise mechanics”—to be gambling, and “we also disagree that there’s evidence that shows it leads to gambling.” However, that evidence has been enough for countries like Belgium and The Netherlands, both of which have banned certain types of randomised loot boxes under their gambling laws.
Hopkins said those decisions were rooted in the laws of each land, and EA doesn’t agree with them, either, although it has made necessary changes in those regions to comply with their laws.
The rest of the session proceeded apace, with government officials asking questions about how games work and trying to corral game company representatives into confessing culpability for people selling in-game items for real money via third-party sites—which is of course very against those companies’ terms of service. Hopkins repeatedly shrugged those issues off as actions of “bad guys” and said that those bad actors, not the way loot boxes and surrounding systems are currently designed, are the problem.
“The packs, the surprise—that’s fun for people,” she said. “They like earning the packs, opening the packs, building the teams, trading the teams.”
Which comes closer to inadvertently addressing the real problem: the compulsiveness of the broader systems and the clear intentionality of their design. They’re built on finely-calibrated systems of chance. Everything from underlying statistics to the way opening them looks and feels is built to maximise Christmas-like anticipation.
As Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra put it in a piece chronicling her own experiences with loot boxes: “Moment for moment, loot boxes are engineered to capture attention with a mixture of spectacle and psychological trickery not unlike what you might find at a slot machine.”
In an update earlier this year, Epic removed the random element from for-purchase loot boxes in Fortnite’s non-battle-royale mode, Save The World. During today’s session, a representative of the company conceded that “there’s more that the industry can do.” EA, however, is standing firm.
“I don’t think we can agree to say that games are addictive,” said Hopkins. “I would tell you that Electronic Arts already is a very responsible company.”
With just under a month until the Senate inquiry into "gaming microtransactions for chance-based items" - loot boxes and such - reports back, more submissions to the inquiry have been made public. Two of those submissions have come from the Victorian Minister for Gaming and Liquor Regulation, as well as the NSW Government's deputy secretary of Liquor, Gaming and Racing, and both submissions are encouraging an update to the classification guidelines to recognise loot boxes.