Researchers have discovered a proven link between individuals who play video games with loot boxes and individuals who exhibit problematic gambling behaviors. As a result, the video game feature has come under mass scrutiny that has risen to the level of legal crackdowns in the UK.
In the U.S., however, loot boxes are still entirely legal and unregulated. Given the movement of responsible gaming legislature and initiatives over the past two years, though, this is not something that is likely to last.
Video game loot boxes raise concern
Popular games like Fortnite, FIFA, and Call of Duty all feature in-game loot box content. Game developers use these loot boxes, which are basically random in-game items players can purchase with real money, as a way to upsell customers. The problem is, the entire concept of a loot box is built off of gambling industry tactics.
Loot boxes allow players to score rare and exclusive swag they can tout within a game. But here’s the catch. Players don’t know what they’ll receive in these digital treasure chests, leaving many to compare loot boxes to slot machines.
Many boxes may feature items of minimal worth. But occasionally, loot boxes have something of extra value hiding inside. Thus, players are incentivized to purchase box after box in the hopes of snagging an exclusive item.
Studies link loot boxes to problem gambling
Countries like the US and New Zealand have yet to impose official regulations. Others have seen efforts advance more effectively. Belgium and the Netherlands have both enacted bans, citing various studies linking loot boxes to problem gambling.
This March, Australia proposed its own variety of loot box guidelines. For instance, games with loot boxes should be given M ratings and restricted to players over 15 years old.
Nowhere has the recent loot box buzz been stirring louder, however, than in the UK.
UK releases new loot box guidelines
Although the UK Government initially uncovered a link between loot boxes and problem gambling in 2020, it wasn’t until recently that safeguards were established.
Officials instead spent the last few years discussing potential solutions, considering everything from entirely banning loot boxes from minors to requiring gaming brands to implement their own rules for underage protection.
The UK’s Department of Culture, Media, and Sport enacted industry-led measures in 2022, including a three-year public awareness campaign and the introduction of parental restrictions.
In May 2023, the group published the Video Games Research Framework, championing enhanced age verification systems, player spend analysis, and responsible gambling measures.
UK Interactive Entertainment, or Ukie, became the lastest industry body to further the issue, publishing 11 new guidelines for video game loot boxes. Under these new guidelines, players younger than 18 years old are prevented from purchasing in-game loot boxes without a parent’s permission.
Furthermore, gaming companies must now reveal the presence of loot boxes before a title is purchased and list the probability of winning each potential prize inside. The new policies even go so far as to outline refund policies for purchases made without the consent of an adult — though this one may be easier to implement in theory than in practice.
US legislators eye loot box crackdowns
US states have seen a handful of bills regarding loot boxes introduced in past years, though none have ultimately succeeded.
The subject became especially popular in 2019 after Epic Games received a putative class action lawsuit alleging that Fortnite loot boxes were advertised in a false, misleading manner.
In May of 2019, US Senator Josh Hawley introduced the Protecting Children From Abusive Games Act in an attempt to ban loot boxes from minors.
Most recently, Blizzard Entertainment began phasing out loot boxes last year due to the controversy. Although the brand’s popular title Overwatch debuted as a single-purchase game, it evolved into a free-to-play game relying explicitly on in-game purchases. Now, randomized loot boxes are a thing of the past in Overwatch. Special skins and upgrades must instead be purchased outright or earned via a select path of in-game challenges.
Players have voiced much critique over the new business model, suggesting the US Government could create some much-needed common ground by establishing loot box regulations for underage players.
The UK’s gambling industry may be 5 to 10 years ahead of the US regarding most things. This situation, however, is one where the US would benefit from following in the UK’s footsteps sooner rather than later.