The loot box dominos are tumbling. Not even a week after The Netherlands ruled certain types of loot boxes illegal, Belgium has likewise found the games it investigated to be "games of chance" (see: gambling) and therefore operating illegally under current law. And judging by a press release announcing the news, it sounds like Belgium is taking perhaps the strongest stance on loot boxes thus far.
To recap, while loot boxes (which is to say an in-game container of random digital goods that can be purchased for in-game or real-world money) have existed in some form or another for years, it was the release of Star Wars Battlefront 2 in November 2017 that acted as a tipping point for players.
The game was heavily criticized for relying too much on loot boxes as a form of player progression, and such was the ire of the gaming public that loot boxes became a worldwide conversation. Several countries launched investigations into the controversial business model, and now The Netherlands and Belgium have announced their results, with more sure to come.
Subtle differences, big consequences
The Netherlands concluded in its report that several, but not all, of the games it investigated were indeed in violation of the law. However, this was mostly due to a technicality: the games deemed illegal were those in which players could sell items pulled from loot boxes for real-world money. And really, it's not even that the act itself is illegal, it's that doing so without a license is illegal.
By contrast, Belgium found loot boxes to be in violation of Belgium's gambling laws, regardless of whether the content inside the loot boxes could be sold or traded for real-world currency. The country investigated four games - FIFA 18, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Star Wars Battlefront 2 - and found that (somewhat ironically) only Battlefront 2 did not violate the law thanks to a recent update which radically changed the progression system.
Belgium's stance is also much harsher compared to The Netherlands, the latter of which kindly requested developers and publishers (which it did not name publicly) to, hey, y'know, change this by June 20 or we'll have to fine you or prohibit sales of your game, 'kay thanks. Meanwhile, Belgium not only named the games it found to be operating illegally, but also warned those responsible that they could face a fine of up to €800,000 and five years in prison. "If this is not properly arranged, games of chance in video games will cause great damage to people, family, and society," the nation's press release warns (translation via Google).
Belgium added that when minors are involved, the aforementioned penalties can be doubled. "Mixing games and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for mental health," says Minister of Justice Koen Geens in the press release. "We have already taken numerous measures to protect both minors and adults against the influence of, among other things, gambling advertising. That is why we must also ensure that children and adults are not confronted with games of chance when they are looking for fun in a video game."
Peter Naessens, director of the Gaming Commission, had a similarly stern response. "Paying loot boxes are not an innocent part of video games that present themselves as games of skill. Players are tempted and misled, and none of the protective measures for gambling are applied. Now that it is clear that children and vulnerable people in particular are exposed to them unprotected, game manufacturers but also parties such as FIFA, for example, are called upon to call a halt to this practice."
In the United States, some legislators (notably those representing Hawaii) are likewise calling for games with loot boxes to be regulated much the same way gambling is stateside. Proposed legislation would prevent the sale of games with randomized digital rewards to customers under the age of 21, and/or require publishers to disclose probability rates. Nothing's been made into law yet, but it's clear which way the winds are blowing for loot boxes. It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out.
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