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Call for children to be banned from in-game gambling

Written by: Emma Lunn
A committee of MPs has called for the regulation of “loot boxes” in video games under gambling law, and a ban on their sale to children.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into “addictive and immersive technologies” heard stories of young people running up debts of thousands of pounds through spending in games.

One member of the public reported their adult son had built up debts of more than £50,000 through spending on so-called “microtransactions” on online game RuneScape.

Jagex, the company behind RuneScape, admitted players could spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month on microtransactions.

Another player admitted he’d spent up to £1,000 a year on Electronic Arts’ FIFA series by trying to buy better players.

The wide-ranging report calls upon games companies to accept responsibility for addictive gaming disorders, protect players from potential harms due to excessive play-time and spending, and introduce more effective age verification tools for users.

What are loot boxes?

A loot box is an in-game purchase consisting of a virtual container that awards players with items and modifications based on chance. Players purchase loot boxes with in-game or real-world currency.

Loot boxes are increasingly used by game developers to improve the profitability of games that are either free to play or that can be played following a one-off cost.

Loot boxes involve an element of chance because players do not know what they will get. However, they are not covered by existing gambling legislation because the items “won” are not considered to have monetary value.

A survey by the Gambling Commission in 2018 found that 31 per cent of children aged 11 to 16 had paid for loot boxes.

MPs’ recommendations

The immersive and addictive technologies inquiry investigated how games companies operate across a range of social media platforms and other technologies.

It recommended that:

  • The sale of loot boxes to children should be banned.
  • The government should regulate loot boxes under the Gambling Act.
  • The games industry must face up to its responsibilities to protect players from potential harms.
  • There should be an industry levy to support independent research on long-term effects of gaming.
  • There should be effective system to keep children off age-restricted platforms and games.

MPs on the committee have previously called for a new “Online Harms regulator to hold social media platforms accountable for content or activity that harms individual users. They say the new regulator should also be empowered to gather data and take action regarding addictive games design from companies and behaviour from consumers.

Damian Collins MP, DCMS committee chair, said: “Social media platforms and online games makers are locked in a relentless battle to capture ever more of people’s attention, time and money. Their business models are built on this, but it’s time for them to be more responsible in dealing with the harms these technologies can cause for some users.

“Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm. Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up. We challenge the government to explain why loot boxes should be exempt from the Gambling Act.”

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