In November 2018, the Gambling Commission produced a new report on gambling amongst children, with their headline findings including that 14% of 11-16-year-olds had gambled their own money in the past week before the survey was carried out. However, this number pales somewhat in comparison to the revelation that 31% of those children claimed to have opened ‘loot-boxes’ in computer games, a practice outlawed by Belgium in April of this year. This report raises new questions about the decision of the UK’s Gambling Commission to continue to allow this form of gambling, which takes place disproportionately among young people.
‘Loot boxes’ are the name given to items purchased within computer games, where the player spends either in-game or real currency on items with a luck element involved – a player could spend £10 and get an elite item or spend £100 and get nothing of worth. This has been popularised by incredibly popular games such as the FIFA series and Call of Duty, each of which reached over 20 million players. A Statista survey suggests that in 2017 68% of 12-15 year-olds played video games, exposing many of these children to games with loot boxes, especially as it is possible that many of those asked by the Gambling Commission may not have appreciated that items such as FIFA ‘packs’ are technically loot boxes. From personal experience, friends at my secondary school often spent vast amounts of money on loot boxes. While this may not constitute problem gambling in itself, it introduces a culture of gambling among young people.
The Belgian government declared in April that loot boxes were a form of gambling, and consequently that those which could be purchased for real money should be removed, noting that sentences for failing to comply would become harsher when children were target audiences, as is particularly the case for EA with its FIFA games. Other games such as Star Wars Battlefront came under heavy criticism, for marketing games towards children using the Star Wars brand which were then heavily monetised using loot boxes. The Belgian report specifically noted the ‘game element’ in opening loot boxes, while others online noted the way graphics and animations were used to encourage players to purchase loot boxes.
The UK’s Gambling Commission refused to outlaw loot boxes at that time because loot box rewards can only be spent within the games in which they are purchased, similarly to the US, who decided they did not constitute gambling as players always received some kind of reward from purchase.
There are those in the Conservative UK government who would be opposed to regulation on this kind of issue. The party is generally against issuing what it sees as unnecessary state intervention within markets, stressing individual and parental responsibility for actions. This is not true of all Conservatives or all UK politicians, but there seems to be no desire at this point to legislate on this issue.
However, there are a number of developments in recent months which may affect this viewpoint. The government caused a furore recently with a decision to delay the decrease of maximum stakes in ‘Fixed Odd Betting Terminals’ such as slot machines from £100 to £2, a decision it had to reverse after significant opposition from its own backbench MPs and the resignation of Sports Minister Tracey Crouch, after a report found that two people commit suicide every day due to gambling-related problems.
This introduction of greater regulation on gambling may open the field up to further regulation, and the revelation from the Gambling Commission that more and more children are developing ‘problem gambling’ habits may encourage the government to act. However, in the Commission’s 47-page report, loot boxes were mentioned just four times, despite the higher figures of children using them than any other form of gambling. With the appointment of Jeremy Wright, a reputed technophobe in Westminster, to head up the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Department, interest in areas such as video games may further decrease.
Given the government’s own findings in the case of FOBTs that gambling has devastating effects on both individuals and society, it would be wise to act now to curb a culture of gambling among young people, introduced in areas it may not previously have considered a problem.