“Won’t someone think of the children?!” A call to arms that has been echoed in the video game industry since they became available to the public. In the ’80s arcades were seen as a spot where hooligans gathered. In the 90’s violent games like Mortal Kombat resulted in the creation of the ESA and ESRB to avoid the government getting involved. The early 2000s saw issues like the infamous Hot Coffee coming to the public eye, and later the No Russian Mission in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 added more fuel to the fire. This decade will come to an end with Lootboxes being the controversy to talk about.
While many casual gamers may not seem to care about the issue, they have made their voices heard before. EA’s Battlefront 2 reveal of game-altering mechanics in Loot Boxes created a PR nightmare that resulted in EA earning a Guinness World Record for the most downvoted Reddit comment in the site’s history. This also caused the game to woefully underperform in sales. With loot boxes now in the public eye, lawmakers around the globe are now looking into the legality of the game mechanic. In April 2018, Belgium declared the mechanic gambling and banned games with them. This further prompted government agencies to investigate the mechanic as well. Markets like Japan, Australia, and even the US are looking into the legality of the billion dollar business, some companies are trying to avoid the loss in revenue.
This has recently been seen in the UK. In September, members of parliament met with an EA representative where the representative said that the proper term is “surprise mechanics.” And boy did the internet respond. In the month since that meme filled moment, the UK continued its investigation culminating in the release of a report from the Children’s Commissioner.
The report titled Gaming the System, was a study conducted with 29 children with ages ranging from 10-16 years old. The point of the study was to “better understand the risk and benefits children experience while playing online games.” The children were separated into different groups by a specific game, even if they played others. These games included Roblox, Minecraft, FIFA, Fortnight, and Call of Duty Black Ops 4. The report wasn’t an attack on video games but honestly looked at what children do while playing online games.
They looked at the positives and negatives of online gaming, time management, and experiences with monetization in games. The first bit they covered is that playing online is an extension of social playing. It was recorded that many children playing online games associate with the same circle of friends they had offline. They also noted that they learned skills like teamwork, cooperation, and communication. Children playing Minecraft and Roblox also displayed creative outlets that they never considered before.
Researchers also looked at potential hazards such as strangers and scammers. The children admitted to having such encounters but also displayed ways they protect themselves. The children also detailed their time spent playing games and only a few would describe themselves as addicted to playing video games. However, one area that all children seemed to share was a level of bullying and it has connections to monetization.
Many children admitted to being the subject of teasing and bullying if they had default skins. The children said that the kids with the default skins are seen as poor or even trash. In the case of FIFA, not having the right players can lead to losing matches. It seemed that a majority of the children admitted to spending additional money in a game, with one admitting to spending over 300 pounds a year. The causes of such spending range from peer pressure, influence from YouTubers, to even the game encouraging the action making it seem like a convenience.
The researchers then compiled a list of potential actions that they see as the most helpful. These included actions that lawmakers should take, for parents to be aware of what is in the game, to actions that developers and distributors can implement. Actions like:
- “Spending should be limited to which are not linked to performance- e.g. aesthetic items such as outfits.”
- “All games which allow players to spend money should include features for players to track their historic spending.”
- Max daily spending cap and a default setting that disables the monetization
- And more.
They also stated that children should also be taught how to be a digital citizen, insisting that their online and offline behaviour should not be different.
This study from the UK and was released on 22 October and currently, Parliament has more pressing issues on their plate. This could however, be the nail in the coffin for loot box surprise mechanics in the UK. Given this data, it wouldn’t be surprising if the US started to take a stronger stance as well. Video Game journalists with Inside Gaming brought up that some games may be trying to move away from surprise mechanics by adopting the battle pass method, but that is pure speculation.
And that’s the latest news. Please let us know your thoughts on surprise mechanics. If you’re a parent, how are you teaching your kids the dangers of monetization in games?