A great deal of scrutiny has been placed on loot boxes and how close they are to outright gambling over the last couple of years, with governments around the world deciding whether or not they need regulating under existing gambling laws. Belgium and Holland, for very different reasons, have both cracked down on the business practices and the US Senate has a bill in the works.
EA have leant heavily on the business model, and despite the intense pushback against how loot boxes were included in Star Wars Battlefront 2, they’ve continued to rake in cash from their ludicrously lucrative FIFA Ultimate Team packs and equivalents through their other sports games.
But it’s OK, because as EA VP of legal and government affairs Kerry Hopkins told the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee yesterday – you can watch or listen here – they’re not really “loot boxes” and shouldn’t be thought of as gambling. No, they’re really just “surprise mechanics” that she compared to Kinder Eggs and Hatchimals.
But why stop there? Other examples of surprise mechanics she could have used include sniffing a clown’s flower, coming home to a surprise party on your birthday, forget-me-nows, someone covering your eyes and saying “guess who?“, or pulling your dad’s finger.
And actually, if you can pretend that Star Wars Battlefront II didn’t happen, microtransactions and randomised rewards into games are a real positive. People love them! She said, “We do think that the way that we have implemented these kinds of mechanics – and FIFA of course is our big one, our FIFA Ultimate Team and our packs – is actually quite ethical and quite fun, enjoyable to people.”
I mean, just… what?
Let’s be honest here, loot boxes and microtransactions in general might as well be the animal tested cosmetics of video game monetisation. In fairness, she only said this when asked whether they considered loot boxes to be ethical, but there’s nothing inherently ethical about them, regardless of whether people find opening them fun and enjoyable.
And even then, people find actual gambling to be fun as well. The risk of throwing money at something, the thrill, the adrenaline rush as you pull the one armed bandit, pray for the last-gasp goal to make your accumulator come good. These are identical hooks that cross between gambling and randomised loot boxes, and let’s be honest, that cross over to the surprise toys that Hopkins mentions.
She continued, “We agree with the UK gambling commission, the Australian gambling commission, and many other gambling commissions that they aren’t gambling, and we also disagree that there’s evidence that shows it leads to gambling. Instead we think it’s like many other products that people enjoy in a very healthy way, and like the element of surprise.”
Unsurprisingly, a part of the reason for the committee meeting to discuss this was that there are those on it that believe that, especially given the sums of money that these business models can dredge up, companies do at least have a legal duty of care to ensure that these are not exploitative and taken to extremes. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome from this committee is and if that changes the law or ruling in the UK.