When gaming becomes gambling

I was really looking forward to playing the new Star Wars: Battlefront 2 game. It looked pretty cool and I liked the first instalment. But when I checked out the reviews online, nobody was talking about the new game; they were debating if the “loot boxes” within the game constituted gambling or not.

In the last week, loot boxes have been defined or investigated as gambling by various regulators in the UK, Belgium, Australia, and Hawaii. Gambling? Gambling in a computer game children at my kid’s school were playing? Gambling in a game rated M, meaning that anyone could play?

Loot boxes are virtual boxes that contain randomised in-game content or upgrades. Games often include a way to bypass time-consuming ways to earn content or upgrades by charging players to open them, despite the fact that you knowing what you’re paying for.

There’s a legitimate argument (some would say a gripe) about paying for in-game content when you’ve already forked out to purchase the game. Loot boxes take this to a whole new level, randomising what you’re buying. When you open a loot box, you’re treated to an array of visual and audio stimuli, very similar to what you would see when winning on the pokie machines.

Loot boxes have opened up a debate about gaming fairness – paying money to get a competitive edge — but more importantly there is a debate whether loot boxes should be regulated by gambling agencies. A big concern is that these games are available to children vulnerable to the addictive consequences of gambling.

Belgium’s Gaming Commission has said “the mixing of money and addiction is gambling.” Koen Geens, who is Belgium’s Minister of Justice, also stated that “mixing gambling and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for the mental health of the child.” Geens wants loot boxes banned not only in Belgium, but in Europe and abroad.

However, our Department of Internal Affairs says:

The Department considers ‘loot boxes’ as a marketing tactic within computer games that use psychology to reward players and encourage them to spend more on the game. While the exact contents of a loot box may be unknown at time of purchase, the payment of the charge does purchase a box. This does not appear to meet the definition of gambling.

You have to ask then if you sold an Instant Kiwi scratch game ticket in a box, could you skirt gambling laws, arguing you’re just selling boxes?

Whether you think loot boxes are gambling or not, I think this an important discussion we should be having. We need to make sure our rules around gambling are flexible enough to cope with changing technology.

At the very least, games containing loot boxes should include labels and further information warning parents and caregivers of the potential risks that lie just inside the box.