Class loot boxes as gambling, Children's Commissioner urges

22 October 2019

The Children’s Commissioner for England has called on the UK Government to introduce tighter laws to help protect children when gaming online after a new report found some youngsters are spending hundreds of pounds on in-game purchases via so-called loot boxes.

The non-departmental public body spoke to children between the ages of 10 and 16 during its ‘Gaming the System’ study, looking at the experience of youngsters playing games online.

The report said that 93% of UK children play video games, with the Children’s Commissioner Office (CCO) finding that some of these had expressed concerns about how they feel out of control of their spending on online games.

According to the CCO, the amount children spend on loot boxes varies, with some spending more than £300 in one year. The CCO said some of the children likened buy a loot box to gambling, in that they do not know the contents until after they make a purchase.

This was particularly apparent with football game FIFA, where gamers can buy a player pack in the hope of improving their team, without knowing what they will get in the pack. Youngsters said the lack of reward for some of these purchases left them feeling as though they had wasted their money, while others spent more money in the hope of finding higher rated players in other packs.

The CCO also flagged that some children said they felt pressured from friends and online strangers to make such purchases, while others said influence from famous gaming YouTubers was a factor in the behaviour.

In its response, the CCO said given children are not permitted to gamble offline, then the same rules should apply when gaming online. As such, the CCO called for urgent action to address its concerns.

The CCO said the Government should seek to limit the role of money in online games by updating current gambling laws to reflect the reality of children’s experiences of spending money in games. This would include listing financial harm as within scope of forthcoming online harms legislation.

Other suggestions put forward by the CCO include a call for the Government to amend the definition of gaming in section 6 of the Gambling Act 2005 in order to regulate loot boxes as gambling. A cross-Parliament Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee made similar request last month.

The CCO said that the Government should also undertake a wider review into the current definition of gambling in the Gambling Act, to ensure that it accurately reflects new forms of gambling, including those forms found in online games.

In terms of games developers and platforms, the CCO said they should not enable children to progress within a game by spending money and limit spending to items that are not linked to performance.

The CCO also suggested that all games in which players can spend money should include features for gamers to track their historic spend, while maximum daily spend limits should be introduced in such games and turned on by default for children.

In addition, the CCO said parents should also be more proactive by speaking to their children about the ways in which games companies monetise products, and discuss alternatives if they would like to avoid these aspects of gaming, such as new subscription-based services that have recently come to the market.

Loot boxes have attracted heavy criticism from various quarters in recent times due to the fact that children can spend freely on these items.

However, this month, Gaming Regulators’ European Forum (GREF) members completed their year-long study into gambling-like microtransactions in video games, but opted against specific recommendations to introduce measures against such features.

In September 2017, gambling regulators from 19 countries including Malta, The Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom and France launched a study into gambling-like microtransactions, including loot boxes.

GREF members stated they did not feel that it could recommend the introduction of gambling regulation regarding loot boxes, as how they could be regulated would depend on each country’s definition of gambling.