Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Loot Boxes And Gambling: Politicians Are Taking Note

As the controversy over loot boxes in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 continues, governments and individual politicians around the world increasingly are looking into situation. Yesterday, Belgium's national gambling commission, the Kansspelcommissie (Kanspel Committee) ruled that loot boxes are a form of gambling. VTM News quoted Belgium's Minister of Justice Koen Geens as saying, "Mixing gambling and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for the mental health of the child." The report from the Belgium site also indicated that Geens sought to ban the practice of loot boxes, even outside Belgium.

Are anti-loot box activists blowing the report out of proportion to its importance? Eurogamer offered an alternative view.
It sounds decisive, but it's worth treating with some caution. Responding to the Belgian commission's latest statement, UK gaming lawyer Jas Purewal noted the country still had "no considered policy position, no stated strategy" and that "gambling authorities move slowly on the whole".

"TLDR - don't read much into Belgium news yet. Even if somehow it happens, I don't think it would actually change very much at all. Only if this becomes a concerted international movement against video games gambling would things change. The chances of that happening seems very low."

Is a concerted international movement brewing? In Netherlands, the Dutch Gaming Authority is looking into the practice of video games offering loot boxes.
"Suppose we assume that this is a game of chance," says a spokesperson for the Gaming Authority to "In the Netherlands, a game of chance is subject to licensing when a prize or premium can be won, but we do not yet have a licensing system for online games of chance."

"If someone offers an online game of chance, then this party is in violation, which in the worst case can result in enforcement and a penalty for the provider."

This would mean that the sale of games with loot boxes could potentially be banned until a new law for online games of chance comes into effect. A law for this was adopted in 2016 by the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate.

Member of Parliament Michiel van Nispen (SP) has asked parliamentary questions on Thursday to the Minister for Legal Protection about lootbox games. Among other things, it asks whether the Minister wants to take steps to bring the risks of the games to the attention.
Politicians are also looking into the matter. Jérôme Durain, a senator from Saône-et-Loire, the seventh largest department in France, issued the following letter which was translated and posted on Reddit:
Paris, 16th of November 2017

Mr. President,

Following our exchanges during the parliamentary mission conducted with Mr Rudy Salles, I can only offer my congratulations on the positive trend in the world of video games in general and that of e-sport in particular. Economically dynamic, this cultural industry seems to me a positive contribution to the country: far from the accusation of being an ultra-violent culture that was made only a few years ago, video games allows millions of players to flourish, to exchange, and to develop a practice sometimes close to high level sport. French game developers and the champions of the latest games on the e-sport scene contribute to French cultural influence in the world. I believe that the balanced and benevolent position of ARJEL [French online gambling regulator], which prefers to keep e-sport and gambling distinct from one another, has contributed to the general dynamism that can be observed today.

This context, however, should not prevent us from following the numerous and rapid evolutions of the sector. Today, loot boxes seem to me to require special attention from the public authorities. Many players and specialized observers (see the article devoted to the subject in the magazine Canard PC) question the deleterious effects of the spread of these micro-transactions in the world of video games.While I do not think it is necessary at this stage to put in place specific legislation, I wonder about the desirability of providing consumer protection in this area. The use of loot boxes conferring cosmetic additions to the games seems well-accepted by the public. The development of so-called pay-to-win practices is more contentious, as shown by the recent controversy over the game Star Wars Battlefront 2. Quite aside from the acceptance of the practice, some observers point to a convergence of the video game world and practices specific to gambling.

Transparency is not common with regard to statistics governing loot boxes, even though good practices sometimes exist. China has decided in favour of a transparency of win ratios. Some of our European neighbours (the United Kingdom and Belgium in particular) are looking into the matter through their regulatory authorities. So we see that the question is not unique to France. Does ARJEL have the infrastructure necessary for a general census of win ratios for micro transactions?

I am sensitive to the fact that dialogue is ongoing between the public authorities and the games industry, so I have written in similar terms to Mr. Mahjoubi, Secretary of State for digital affairs, and I have informed the SELL [French videogame consumer body], the SNJV [French games industry association] and the France e-sport association of these initiatives. Prompt and sincere self-regulation of the sector would be reassuring news at a time when some players predict the imminent arrival of e-sports betting. I am convinced that collective reflection will enable us to find a satisfactory answer to this new problem.

Yours sincerely,Jérôme Durain

Belgium and Netherlands are small countries. What would the effect of France moving against loot boxes have on the stance of the European Union as a whole? Add in the possibility that the UK Gambling Commission might take action against games that sell loot boxes under certain circumstances, and the environment for games with loot boxes in Europe is becoming less friendly to loot boxes by the week.

But what about the United States? Even a few states, if large enough, deciding that loot boxes qualified as gambling would put a crimp in a U.S. distribution of a game. A state representative from Hawaii, Chris Lee, posted a video that went viral before his staff completed the accompanying PR materials.

Senator Lee then posted a statement on Reddit explaining his position.
Chris Lee here - I'm the one in the suit. My staff just told me someone apparently found this youtube upload before we had a chance to finish putting it together, but I thought I'd leave it up and just post here to explain that this fight can be won if people step up. This fight is about protecting kids, protecting families, freedom from exploitation, and the future of entertainment in this country.

People are more powerful than they think. While we are stepping up to act in Hawaii, we have also been in discussions with our counterparts in a number of other states who are also considering how to address this issue. Change is difficult at the federal level, but states can and are taking action.

Even so, elected officials can't do it alone. They need your support and you can compel action wherever you live by calling and emailing your own state legislators and asking them to act. But don't stop there. Call your allies. Call your pastors and teachers and community leaders. Ask them to call your state legislators as well. Their voices are politically powerful.

I believe this fight can be won because all the key bases of political support across the country are on the same side. The religious community, the medical community, the education community, consumer advocates, parents, even many business leaders and local chambers of commerce. This is a fight that unites everyone, even the most polarized conservatives and progressives. Doing something is a political win for Democrats and Republicans alike. And frankly, we don't need to change the laws in every state - we just need to change a few and it will be enough to draw the line and compel change.

These kinds of lootboxes and microtransactions are explicitly designed to prey upon and exploit human psychology in the same way casino games are so designed. This is especially true for young adults who child psychologists and other experts explain are particularly vulnerable. These exploitive mechanisms and the deceptive marketing promoting them have no place in games being marketed to minors, and perhaps no place in games at all.

Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one. You have the power to get involved and decide this and the choice is clear: stand up now, or let this be the new normal from this point forward.
Honestly, I think anti-loot box forces are getting a little too excited about the statements of politicians. Durain is a member of the French Socialist Party, whose candidate managed less than 6.5% of the vote in the presidential election this year. And while Rep. Lee is a member of the majority party running Hawaii, his area of expertise involves environmental issues. While he is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I don't believe he has the backing of his party on the subject of loot boxes. But, like the Washington State Gambling Commission's actions in regards to CS:GO gambling, the current movement of national and state gambling authorities to take a close look at gambling in video games may restrain the more egregious implementations of loot boxes.

Oh, who am I fooling. The video game companies will keep up the practice until one of them gets hit with legal action.

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