MMOs and politics once again collide this week as last night CNN broke the news that Robert Mueller’s FBI team has zeroed in on Russian oligarch and Renova Group chairman Viktor Vekselberg as part of the Special Counsel investigation into Russian election interference, questioning Vekselberg about money Renova’s US “affiliate” transferred to US President Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen. (Tangentially, those allegations were brought to light by Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti.)
And the name of that US affiliate under investigation? Yeah, it’s Columbus Nova, the firm that claimed it acquired MMORPG studio Daybreak back in 2015. Here we go again.
“FBI agents asked Vekselberg about payments his company’s American affiliate, Columbus Nova, made to Cohen, according to one source,” CNN reports. “The Russian was questioned as well about $300,000 in political donations by Andrew Intrater, Vekselberg’s American cousin who is the head of Columbus Nova, sources said.” Columbus Nova claimed to CNN that it is “owned and controlled by Americans”; it further denies any use of “Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments” to Cohen.
Anybody for some good news? Yeah? Me too! If you follow real-world international headlines even a little bit, you surely are aware that history was made yesterday as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met at the border for what are effectively unprecedented peace talks. Kim became the first North Korean leader to visit South Korea.
So it only makes sense that South Korean games would celebrate, right? Black Desert sure is. Pearl Abyss and Kakao announced this morning that it’ll ring the bells of peace in the world of Black Desert tonight at 10 p.m. EDT (7 p.m. PDT). That’s a bit of a euphemism; it turns out to be a one-hour experience buff.
“Please enjoy the buff in honour of peace and refrain from karma bombing during this time,” Kakao asks.
Here is something kind of neat: Trion Worlds CEO Scott Hartsman sitting down with NBC’s Press:Here to talk about video game violence and game ratings. Hartsman came on the program in response to the US administration’s claims that video games are too violent and one of the causes of school violence.
“There are contraindicators of video game play and actual real-world committing violence,” Hartsman said. “I think that at the end of the day, studying actual facts will lead us in a much better direction.”
Other members of the panel said that this is a small distraction for the White House and that it will quickly move on from using video games as a scapegoat for recent school shootings.
Just for the record, we are not the only ones engaged in the discussion and controversy surrounding lockboxes and lootboxes as of late. YouTube channel Extra Credits put together an entertaining and informative video that brings everyone up to speed on what’s happening with all of this, even if you’ve been out of the loop.
The video does raise some concerns about what might happen if and when governments get involved in legislating lootboxes under gambling laws. Some of these concerns have to do with states that consider gambling illegal, access to games with “gambling” if you are under 21 years of age, varying forms of lootboxes, and studios worrying about lawsuits from players over bans if that person has digital property with monetary value. Regular readers will recall a few months back when our SWTOR columnist considered the direct implications for his own game too.
“There are a whole bunch of effects this legislation could have on gaming beyond simply restricting lootboxes as a model,” the video argues. “So we have to be incredibly careful about how we approach this legislation.”
Researchers and self-regulatory bodies are continuing their denouncement of the World Health Organization’s plan to classify “gaming addiction” as a “gaming disorder.” The Entertainment Software Association sent ’round a press release this past week rattling off trade groups in the US, Canada, Europe, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, all of which stand in opposition to the plan – as you’d expect.
The more interesting part of the PR is the ESA’s promotion of an independent paper – not one the ESA or the trade bodies financially sponsored, mind you – written by three dozen academics from around the globe urging the WHO to “postpone the formalization” of the disorder.
A weak scientific basis for gaming disorder: Let us err on the side of caution by Antonius van Rooij et al. is still in pre-print before it releases in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, but you can grab the draft and its abstract right now if you’re curious. The authors acknowledge that there may be merit in the “gaming disorder” argument and indeed there may be social benefit in recognizing it but that there exists insufficient high-quality research undergirding the WHO’s conclusions.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board claims it’s taking steps to solve the lockbox crisis, in part in response to bills before multiple state governments as well as discussions in (and ultimata from) the US senate’s commerce, science, and transporation committee. ESRB President Patricia Vance told journalists today that the non-government body will mandate special labels applied to video game boxes notifying consumers that in-app purchases and cash-shop transactions are part of those games. It won’t be explicit to lootboxes, she argues, because “a large majority of parents don’t know what a lootbox is.” It’s set up a new website to explain parental controls to parents as well, though we don’t recall anyone asking for that.
But maybe don’t get too excited. Polygon argues that the proposal “feels like a plot to get legislators off the back of the industry, not a serious attempt to fix anything,” since pretty much every video game would have this relatively generic label and there’s an overt attempt to deflect all real responsibility to parents. Moreover, the ESRB still isn’t requiring publishers to disclose odds for their gambleboxes.
Up until now, the political grumblings about video game gambleboxes has been mostly limited to state governments, specifically Hawaii’s Chris Lee, who submitted four regulatory bills this week, and Washington state’s Kevin Ranker, whose January provisional bill would require an investigation of whether the mechanic constitutes gambling under state laws.
But they’re getting a higher-ranking ally today. As Rolling Stone reports, New Hampshire Senator – that’s the US senate, not the state senate – Maggie Hassan has apparently joined the fray. She sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and used a recent committee hearing to ask FTC nominees their opinion on gaming addiction and lockboxes. (All four apparently said the issue is something they will address.)
Hassan also penned a letter to the ESRB asking it to “review the completeness of the board’s ratings process and policies as they relate to loot boxes, and to take into account the potential harm these types of micro-transactions may have on children.”
Hawaii State Representative Chris Lee has made good on his plan to write and submit bills to the state legislature regulating the sale of video games with predatory lockboxes. The four bills are straightforward: Two seek to block the sale of video games with random-reward gambleboxes to people under the age of 21 (gambling age in Hawaii as well as many other US states), while the other pair requires proper labeling of the gambling mechanics on game boxes as well as disclosure of probability rates of items inside the boxes.
As GIbiz points out, up to now the only active bill on the topic in the US was a demand for more research by Washington representatives.
Germany has added its voice to the anti-lockbox chorus in the US, UK, and Netherlands. According to an article on the German-language Welt (picked up by GIbiz), The German Youth Protection Commission has said it’s examining the lootbox issue as a potential gambling concern and may ban “certain elements in video games” in the region.
The move is apparently based on an as-yet unpublished University of Hamburg study that analyzes video game sales and business models, ultimately determining what most online gamers already know: that such games actively target whales, who are responsible for the majority of their revenue. This, the researchers reportedly conclude, is “a typical feature of gambling markets.”
The Commission is due to file its determination this coming March.
. Thanks, Veldan and Fabio!
Remember how the World Health Organization is angling to classify gaming addiction as a “gaming disorder”? Researchers and self-regulatory bodies have been pushing back against the move in the US – and apparently in Europe too, as The Guardian reports this week that UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie) has also said it’s concerned about “the inconclusive nature of the research” upon which the classification is based.
The publication spoke to a Ukie rep as well as multiple academics, one of whom was involved in the WHO committee and supports the classification, and one of whom maintains that research is simply incomplete. Both groups admit that the effect of “disordered gaming” isn’t as strong as gambling disorder itself, and scientists have yet to address why more people don’t succumb to its supposed lure (especially given that a third of the planet games). Comorbidity is also an issue: Is the person really addicted to gaming, or is she gaming because she’s suffering from depression or unable to walk?
With the rhetoric and discussion around video game lockboxes at a fever pitch, it has drawn the attention of at least one US congressperson who has issued a somewhat dire warning to the games industry: Police yourself or get ready for us to do it for you.
Hawaii State Representative Sean Quinlan is the latest in a string of politicians and governments taking the games industry to task over the design and mechanics of pay-for-loot lockboxes. He said that while he doesn’t want to see the government step in to regulate, he also doesn’t believe that game publishers are going to get their act together on this.
Capping off the Great Star Wars Battlefront II Fiasco of November, Belgium’s Gambling Commission and the Dutch Gaming Authority both began investigating lootboxes/lockboxes to determine whether they constitute gambling and necessitate appropriate regulation. Now, the former has issued its ruling, and unlike the gaming-industry bodies ESRB and PEGI, it didn’t add to the BS smokescreen.
Indeed, the Belgian Kanspel Committee has indeed ruled that the practice is a serious problem. “The mixing of money and addiction is gambling,” it declares. Belgian Minister of Justice Koen Greens told VTM that he aims to have gambling mechanics stricken from games entirely, banned outright, throughout Europe. “But that takes time.”
The US state of Hawaii has joined in the fray too, as state representatives have lambasted EA’s “predatory behavior,” calling the game a “Star Wars-themed online casino, designed to lure kids into spending money.” Is it just one state? Maybe not.
With a strong focus on player government and politics, Ashes of Creation is giving careful consideration with how it will structure the leadership of each city. It won’t be hard to figure out where to go if you want to vie for power and position, as the city hall is being designed for such hobnobbing and meetings.
“Our government system is really all about letting players take control of the world they make,” the team wrote in this week’s dev diary. “The first step here is deciding how the city should feel, what laws should be in place and how it’s run.”
At the city hall, player leaders can meet together to make key decisions for the local town. Possible rulings include making people of a certain node “enemies of the state,” what to build, what to tear down, declaring war, forming alliances, activate festivals, and even create quests for other players.