Back in 2017, at the height of mainstream outrage over lockbox shenanigans, Belgium became one of the very first countries to take the problem seriously (instead of just passing the buck). The Belgian committee assigned to investigate concluded in November that “the mixing of money and addiction is gambling” and pledged to ban them. At the end of April of this year, the country effectively did just that. Its Gaming Commission spent several months investigating multiple games, ultimately finding that Overwatch, FIFA 18, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive are operating in violation of its laws specifically because of their lockbox mechanics.
At the time, we had only a few scattered quotes from a translated press release, but this week the Commission has released its entire report (and there’s even a version in English). Its goal is clear: to examine “whether the use of loot boxes in video games constitutes a gambling operation in the sense of the Belgian Gaming and Betting Act. ”
The Commission describes how lootboxes generally work to “lure” players into betting money by tricking players with social behavior monitoring, the illusion of skill, celebrity items, personal currency, easy payment methods, confusing data policies, confusing purchase differentiation, obfuscation of rewards and odds, and “the fusion of fiction and reality.”
The report points out that the EU (like the US) boasts a self-regulatory body for the games industry, PEGI – you’ve probably heard a million voice-overs in videos say things like “PEGI 18.” But PEGI doesn’t “systematically check whether the games allow betting, winning or losing actual money” or consider gambling banned in the real world a problem, as long as it’s merely simulated. The Commission finds PEGI unsatisfactory to the extent that it fails to “protect minors and vulnerable players.” Ultimately, the authors conclude,
“The investigation clearly shows that the purchase of loot boxes by players in the examined video games is highly problematic, both in terms of the purchase as well as in terms of the techniques used to allow players to bet using loot boxes. The self-regulating classification system of video games does not offer the protection envisioned by the Gaming and Betting Act. In fact, there is no single systematic protection of consumers, minors or gambling addicts from gambling. More and more people, including young people, are confronted with gambling without realising it. Because they experience wins and losses in connection with monetary wagers, they are, as it were, raised to consider gambling to be normal and are less capable of resisting the dangers of gambling. The disguised character of games of chance is extra problematic in the case of children. If there is no adequate intervention, then games of chance in video games will increasingly cause harm to players, families and society. The paid loot boxes in the examined games Overwatch, FIFA 18 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive fit the description of a game of chance because all of the constitutive elements of gambling are present (game, wager, chance, win/loss). The loot box system in Star Wars Battlefront 2 prior to the official release of the game also fits this definition, but this is no longer the case today.”