That hot cauldron of controversy and argument over loot boxes and microtransactions is bubbling over again. One of the biggest discussions revolves around whether or not loot boxes can be considered gambling. The next most important discussion involving the issue is how to regulate. I’m sure hardly anyone needs to be reminded, but video games with loot boxes and microtransactions have pretty much always existed in the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One era. It’s only in 2017 that they’ve really become rampant and taken such a massive hold on the eyes of the public.
Most gamers already have a general distain for loot boxes and microtransactions. Now, even larger organizations and governments have started to take part. The Entertainment Software Rating Board currently does not link loot boxes with gambling. The way they see it, something can only be considered gambling if you do not receive something in return for your money. So buying a loot box — while a gamble — is not gambling according to the ESRB. You may not get the items you really want, but you’re still guaranteed something.
On the flip side, the entire country of Belgium is investigating whether or not loot boxes can be considered gambling. Senators in Washington State are urging America to do the same. Kevin Ranker, Reuven Carlyle, and Karen Keiser proposed a bill that requires Washington officials and the video game industry to decide once and for all whether loot boxes are gambling. In Ranker’s words, “What the bill says is, ‘Industry, state: sit down to figure out the best way to regulate this. It is unacceptable to be targeting our children with predatory gambling masked in a game with dancing bunnies or something.” Ranker’s choice of words left a bit of a foul taste in my mouth, since it seems to indicate someone who doesn’t really understand the industry. “Dancing bunnies or something,” in particular, is an uninformed statement. However, we shouldn’t let it supersede his previous point.
The industry really needed to figure this out before governments felt the need to step in. Since they haven’t, maybe this is the only chance for video games to really sort things out. If the Washington loot box bill passes, then the Washington State gambling commission will have until December 31, 2018 to conduct an investigation. This investigation will discover whether or not loot boxes can be considered gambling. After that, the government would have to decide whether they will allow these mechanisms in games period, whether or not minors should have access to them, and/or how odds will be disclosed.
Essentially if the Washington bill passes, we’ll have a ruling once and for all by an American gambling association on whether or not loot boxes are gambling. Past that, it may shape the industry for years to come. At the least, it may require video game developers and publishers to post the odds for loot boxes. This would be a great addition for adult gamers who just want to know what their chances are. Then, they can make a more informed decision on whether or not they’d like to purchase. A passing of the Washington loot box bill might also require the ESRB to add an additional ratings level, which would be the first time since 2005 and second time ever. This new rating would only allow those of legal gambling age to buy games with loot boxes. That age is 18 in Washington State, but is 21 in other places. One Hawaiian lawmaker has already proposed the banning of sales to those under gambling age. There’s also the possibility that this bill could remove the inclusion of loot boxes entirely.
The best case scenario would have involved the video game industry coming together on their own to figure out a way to regulate loot boxes and microtransactions. Had they done the hard work from the beginning, governments would not have felt the need to get involved. The industry should be able to do much of whatever they want, but when something becomes a national and global issue, it feels a little too late. This Washington bill could finally bring adult gamers some piece of mind as far as the inclusion of loot boxes. Maybe they won’t be so common when developers and publishers realize they’ll be shrinking their potential sales market. Parents won’t have as much to be concerned about either, because they’ll have clear indications of what ages should be playing games with loot boxes/microtransactions. At that point, if they choose to let their children play, they only have themselves to blame for ensuing credit card bills.
On the other side of the fence, this Washington bill could put a huge dent into the video game industry. Many publishers and developers make games with loot boxes and microtransactions because it’s a way for them to put food on their own families tables. Certain types of games just don’t make much money at the initial sales point. These games might not be made at all without the ability to include these systems. There’s also the fact that players may lose some of the magic in games without these extra purchases. Sometimes buying a grab bag at a convention is fun (if you know to do so in moderation). The same is true of loot boxes. They’re great when they’re just cosmetic items, don’t cost much, and allow you to have a little more fun with a game you already enjoy.
The Belgian investigation is still underway, and the Washington bill has not reached the Senate Committee on Labor & Commerce yet at the time of this writing. But the future will tell how this all shakes down. Loot boxes might be in for a major change within the industry. Whether the developers and publishers do that themselves, or various governments decide for them.