Loot boxes recommended for ‘comprehensive review’ in Australia

Loot boxes could be subject to further investigation in Australia.
Loot boxes could be subject to further investigation in Australia.

Image: Getty Images/Westend61

The question over whether loot boxes constitute as gambling keeps popping up.

Australia’s government could be the latest set to investigate the gaming feature, after a Senate committee recommended a “comprehensive review” of loot boxes in a report released Tuesday.

One of the committee’s chairs, The Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, is behind the push for a wider look into the feature and whether they could pose any gambling-related harm, especially to children. However, he criticised the “watered-down report,” which only made a single recommendation.

“Many loot boxes utilise a number of psychological mechanisms commonly seen in other forms of gambling, including variable ratio reinforcement schedules, entrapment, and ready and constant availability,” Steele-John said.

“Furthermore, it was argued that the risk to children, young people and even vulnerable adults from developing gambling-related harms through interaction with loot boxes was of such significance that regulators should seek to either prohibit, or restrict access to games containing loot boxes.

“As chair, I sought to follow this evidence and recommended the Parliament take action to ensure that no young person who plays video games is exploited by gambling-like mechanisms.”

Loot boxes unpacked

Loot boxes, a.k.a. “gaming micro-transactions for chance-based items,” have come under the spotlight due to EA’s controversial Star Wars: Battlefront II last year. 

Inside these loot boxes were items that would give characters new abilities or improve and craft new weapons. You can play for hours to acquire enough experience points to open a loot box. Or for a quicker result, spend real money instead, an option which spurred complaints that Battlefront II was pay-to-win.

Despite EA revamping the system, and ensuring loot boxes in November release Battlefield V would not allow any performance or gameplay advantages, it’s still a big presence in other games. 

The hit soccer video game FIFA 19, for instance, features something called Ultimate Team packs, which you can pay for using in-game coins or real money, or by completing challenges in the game.

Depending on your luck, you could get a better player on your team (like a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo) in one of these packs, but it’s more likely you’d get an average player. This year, EA began publishing probabilities of getting a higher-rated player in these packs.

So, should they be regulated?

Marcus Carter, a lecturer in Digital Cultures at the University of Sydney, argued that loot boxes should be more heavily regulated, but there was more work to be done in understanding how these loot boxes work. 

“I hope that the comprehensive review of loot boxes led by the Department of Communications and the Arts recommended in the report is able to reveal exactly how these systems are configured ‘under-the-hood’, something we currently know little about,” Carter said in a statement.

“Our lack of understanding about how these systems actually work limits the capacity for research to identify and understand potential harms.”

IGEA, the association which represents gaming publishers in Australia, said in a statement online it welcomed the report, but noted that “this particular area of games is already subject to regulation from many different departments and authorities.”

In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joseph Simmons also pledged to investigate loot boxes in gaming. In Belgium, loot boxes were declared illegal in April, seen as “in violation of gambling legislation.”

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