The loot box discussion hasn’t really kicked off in 2020 just yet, but thanks to the National Health Service’s mental health director, it just might.
Claire Murdoch, director of mental health for England’s nationalised health care system, has recommended the strongest measure possible for games with loot boxes: just ban them outright. It’s one of a series of recommendations and warnings made by the NHS director, who raised concerns about games’ propensity to draw kids into addictive habits through “by building gambling tasks into their games”, according to the NHS.
“Frankly no company should be setting kids up for addiction by teaching them to gamble on the content of these loot boxes,” Murdoch said. No firm should sell to children loot box games with this element of chance, so yes those sales should end.”
The general thrust of the NHS’s stance is that kids often end up spending their parents money through buying in-game loot boxes or other virtual items like V-Bucks. Not knowing what items you’ll get from a loot box, according to the NHS and echoing similar arguments from academics, encourages users to spend more and more money.
The NHS director called for four changes:
- Ban sales of games with loot boxes that encourage children to gamble
- Introduce fair and realistic spending limits to prevent people from spending thousands in games
- Make clear to users what percentage chance they have of obtaining the items they want before they purchase loot boxes
- Support parents by increasing their awareness on the risks of in-game spending
The calls come as the NHS opens a new treatment centre for gambling addiction, as well as another 14 gambling clinics across England. Gambling addiction affects around 400,000 people in England, with Gambling Commission figures showing that around 55,000 children have some kind of gambling problem.
“The Gambling Commission does not regulate some loot boxes due to a loophole meaning it is not classed as gambling. Under current gambling legislation, this is because there is no official way to monetise what is inside of loot boxes,” the NHS release says. “Despite this, third party websites selling gaming accounts and rare items are commonplace and easy to find on places such as eBay across the internet.”
Academics told an Australian upper house inquiry into microtransactions in 2018 that loot boxes could “act as a gateway to problem gambling amongst gamers” and that developers could exploit “gambling disorders amongst their customers” without appropriate regulation. “We recommend that … serious consideration is given to restricting games that contain loot boxes to players of legal gambling age,” Dr David Zendle and Paul Cairns from York St. John University and the University of York told the Senate inquiry.
Australian regulators also pushed for increased awareness of loot boxes. The Victorian Government’s state minister for Gaming and Liquor Regulation said it was “increasingly difficult for consumers to appreciate where gambling activity begins and ends”. Liquor, Gaming & Racing NSW also called on the government to have loot boxes outlined clearly in the classification ratings. Paul Newson, deputy secretary of Liquor, Gaming & Racing NSW, said that while loot boxes didn’t legally constitute gambling under NSW law, any game with a secondary market where items could be sold for real-world money was “likely to offend NSW gambling laws”.
None of the inquiry’s recommendations were adopted by the federal government last year, instead opting to direct the Department of Communications and the Arts to conduct “a comprehensive review” with the ACCC, ACMA, Office of the e-Safety Commissioner, Department of Social Services and the Classification Board. No update on this review has been provided so far.