Anyone who has played a video game in the past few years, from casual mobile apps to major console franchise installments, will be familiar with microtransactions. These have become a mainstay of the gaming industry, providing developers with a new line of continuous revenue beyond initial purchase, and allowing players to unlock extras from new outfits for their characters to exclusive game content.
Whilst microtransactions have been viewed with some skepticism by many in the industry, who see them as nothing more than a cash grab and an unfair way to give advantage to players with more disposable income, the release of the new Star Wars Battlefront II game has raised a whole new question: are microtransactions, and specifically loot boxes, a form of gambling?
Loot boxes are used in many games, and are a popular form of microtransaction: a player buys a pack of items, often in the form of in-game credits which can be purchased with real-life money, whose contents are secret. The pack can contain small, common in-game items, but can also contain high-value items, which in some cases can even be sold to other players for real money or in-game credit. The question currently being asked is whether this construes a game of chance.
This comes following the release of the latest Star Wars game, whose loot box system has raised controversy online. The main issue arises from the fact that Star Wars is a Disney property, and its merchandise is thus primarily targeted to children: if loot boxes are gambling, then Disney, arguably the world’s most influential and powerful children’s entertainment corporation, is encouraging gambling to children.
However, this isn’t the first game to be accused of incorporating gambling in its microtransactions: EA, the developers of Star Wars Battlefront II, has already faced similar claims with another franchise, the incredibly popular Overwatch. In both cases, EA has stated that loot boxes are not gambling because the player is always guaranteed to receive some in-game content. However, critics of the system claim that it is very similar to a slot machine, which will still provide you with some form of entertainment or a small sum of money when you lose.
For something to be legally considered gambling, three elements need to be in place: consideration (the stake), a prize, and an element of chance. With all three present, you can argue that to purchase a loot box is to effectively gamble on its contents, and that games which use this system should be regulated and treated accordingly, including not being allowed to market to children.
Following the public attention on the matter, the Belgian Gaming Commission and the Dutch Gaming Authority have both launched formal investigations. Other countries, such as France, are rumored to soon follow. Depending on the outcome, the effects on the video game industry could be huge, with several upcoming games being such as FIFA 2018 and Shadow of Mordor being affected. Similarly, new rulings and laws in this area could change the way we think about gambling as a whole, and could influence the iGaming industry.