Health Director Calls For Games With Loot Boxes To Be Banned

Health Director Calls For Games With Loot Boxes To Be Banned

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.

Comments

  • Intesresting considering that almost all mobile games and gaming in general these days is about random loot boxes (pay for box)

    • Good, maybe one day we can go back to how it used to be: You pay upfront for a game and never have to pay again unless there are expansion packs.

      • im really suprised that in this age of digital distrubition that Shareware hasnt made a come back, to me it seems like the perfect solution

        • It kinda did though with episodic games which distributed the first episode as a demo – except they released as each was completed instead of all being available from the start (so we got a bit of early access style backlash to the model)

          There are some mobile games which also use good models of being complete games which are ad-supported (some with small banners, some with video ads between levels), but for which the only IAPs are ‘remove all ads’, and sometimes ‘donate to developer’ or ‘buy expansion pack content’ – those models don’t get great promotion though compared to the buckets of money shovelled through high profile freemiums with three different currencies and gacha games played for a chance to get a slightly different colour of one specific item for one specific character at a time.

  • Where was the government to protect me when I was a kid, all those gambling habits built up from “lucky dips” at the fair, or those packs of TMNT cards with that stick of pink bubblegum that I swear was recycled, those gambling habits have ruined me forever…

    • Lucky dips and trading cards are divorced from the activity of purchasing. Also you are not immersed in a session that is multiple hours long where you are being pushed to purchase the lootboxes, either subversivly or overtly.
      Studies in this very country have found the experience to be linked extremely closel to a gambling experience than simple trading cards.
      Also furthermore other countries with the gatcha mechanic such as Japan actually do have government regulations in place to protect people.

      Loot boxes aren’t gambling they are worse. Gambling is regulated lootboxes aren’t.

      • You’re both right, its wonderful being ignorant, but lets dial it down a little here, hmm?

        The very definition of gambling is to play a game of chance for money. Loot boxes, lucky dips, trading cards all fit that very definition. Trading card stands showing off all the rare cards you could get is the same as your loot boxes. Yes, loot boxes are a hell of a lot more prevalent, but it still boils down to they are both a form of gambling and neither is regulated – and targeted at children.

        Saying its not is like saying light beer isn’t alcohol so it should be sold in school canteens. Who gets to decide which form of gambling is acceptable and which isnt? The government?

          • I know right, imagine that. Who defends such things.

            @jacka said it below perfectly, its a slippery slope. So its ok to ban games for gambling, but its not ok to ban games for content because we have an R rating now. My point that you’ve clearly missed is that if “gambling is banned”, we’re trusting the government can decide what kind of gambling is bad (loot boxes) and what gambling is acceptable (lucky dip, cards, gacha). Do you have complete trust that they’ll be able to make that distinction, or are we back to an archaic nanny-state system we’re were told what we’re allowed to play and do.

          • Game companies love people like you. Willing to bend over and go to the ends of the earth to defend their abhorrent practices that prey on children.

        • Of course modern day trading card packs are a form of gambling, and there’s certainly an argument that these too should be regulated, but as many people have pointed out there are a number of insidious aspects to online loots boxes that don’t apply to physical purchases, including the way online games disguise the actual monetary cost of purchase, incentivise impulse purchases and directly tie loot box purchases into the actual game systems (eg boxes are “dropped” regularly as part of gameplay), none of which apply to your real world examples.

          Your reference to lucky dips is just silly since nobody buys more than 2-3 lucky dips at a time, and certainly nobody plays lucky dip games to win something with greater monetary value while collecting hundreds of crap duplicates in the process. Although in any case, if they did, they would indeed be regulated as a carnival game which it might surprise you to learn already do indeed have their own laws and regulations.

          And of course the government decides, that’s what governments are for. If you aren’t fond of that idea then I wish you well in your anarchist paradise. But in any case, nobody else is arguing for trading card games and lucky dips to be banned, that’s your straw man.

    • Remember that time a kid blew 1000’s of dollars on trading cards? Remember when kids emptied their parents bank accounts for gum?….no? Me either!

      So OK Boomer it isn’t the innocent olden days anymore.

    • You clearly don’t remember this, but trading cards with the pink bubble gum didn’t have rarities, meaning that buying enough packets to collect the full set was typically enough to actually get the full set, with a bit of trading and perhaps a small extra float for some trading flexibility.

      Rarities were only introduced gradually later, initially with a few signature cards or ‘gold’ cards, but mostly went full-on with Magic The Gathering, where various rarities suddenly meant that everyone had dozens of extra commons and virtually no rares. This in practice meant that suddenly the trading part of trading cards more or less disappeared.

      The remembered history of baseball cards gave MTG a free pass, just like you have done, but there is now a fundamental difference between the cards that you remember (and lucky dips) and the situation today, being that the model now is to sell you a huge crock of shit in exchange for a chance at getting something you don’t already have with no chance whatsoever of trading the shit away for something you actually can use.

      And yes, MTG is also exploitative, but as others have noted above, there are a number of additional mechanics that make online loot boxes even worse, including the immersivity, the multiple methods used to disguise the fact that you are spending real money (eg 5 difference currencies) and artificial roadblocks that can only be overcome with real expenditure.

      • Yes there were rare cards, they often had some hologram or foil shine on them, and no matter how many regular cards you had, nobody would trade a foil one for that rubbish.

        Some of these packs would even list the odds of getting a foil card, like one in 5 or one in 10 packs, exactly like what they’re doing now with loot boxes.

        The point is still valid. They’re both forms of gambling targeted at children, who gets to decide which one is suitable, which one isnt?

        • You’re not thinking far enough back. As I said, “Rarities were only introduced gradually later, initially with a few signature cards or ‘gold’ cards“, but even when they were actually introduced we’re mostly talking about, like, 100 signature cards in an entire print run. The actual odds of any single person lucking on one of those by simply buying packs after packs was as close to zero as the odds of winning a lottery.

          To deal specifically with your initial point regarding TMNT, see:
          https://www.cardboardconnection.com/brief-history-teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-trading-cards

          Up until 1992 packs included both stickers and cards, there were fewer stickers than cards, but there was one sticker in each pack so you would have collected a full set of stickers well before you collected a full set of cards. It was only in 2003 that TMNT cards started including something closer to rarities, well after MTG pioneered the practice of swamping you with untradeable crap if you ever wanted to collect a full set of all rarities.

          And your point is not valid. At one point it wasn’t gambling, it was an exercise in encouraging trading. (Buy more or less enough to get all the available cards then swap with your friends until everyone in your circle has a full set.)

          As far as “who gets to decide”, that’s kinda the point of this article, eh? Quite a lot of us think that our elected representatives should indeed decide to ban loot boxes; and as soon as reasonably practical.

          • The actual odds of any single person lucking on one of those by simply buying packs after packs was as close to zero as the odds of winning a lottery. – yet kids aren’t allowed to participate in the lottery, yet here we are in another loophole.

            I don’t particularly like loot boxes, or sports betting, or scratches, or the casino or anything that involves some kind of chance. What I like less is being told that I’m not allowed to because someone decided everyone else needed protecting.

  • Im no fan of loot boxes. But instead of pretending its 1990 where gaming was considered an activity for children, how about we slap an R18 rating on games with loot boxes instead of telling adults what they can and cannot do?
    It would still have the effect of discouraging developers from including it in their games since it is limiting their audience, but doesn’t stop an adult from making their own decisions.

  • I’m waiting for the penny to drop that Loot Boxes are only a small element of the ethically dubious methods used to fund a whole lot of games.

    Then we’ll get an overzealous course correction and we’re back to banning games all over the place

    • That’s an interesting logical leap… kinda like arguing that banning systematic underquoting and undisclosed vendor bids in property auctions is somehow going to lead to an overzealous course correction and next thing we know we’re banning real-estate agents all over the place.

      • I was being a little facetious, but I think its a genuine concern that once some bright spark realises that loot boxes really are the tip of the iceberg, we’re going to wind up with a lot of overly broad rules about what can and can’t be in games and it’s going to be bad for players and developers.

        Look at the Australian classification system for a reasonable example

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