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Children’s Commissioner of England Threatens Microtransactions

As part of an on-going, international battle between gamers, developers/publishers, and government intervention, on October 22, the Children’s Commissioner of England published “Gaming the system,” a study into the effects of gaming on children, and the study paid some special attention to monetization and gambling.

This has been a hot topic in gaming for years now, but recently we’ve heard a very strong argument for the regulation of gambling-like mechanics in games. A lot of concern surfaced around the release of Star Wars Battlefront II back in the fall of 2017 when players accused Electronic Arts of going too far with their in-game purchases that would give players significant advantages over others. In other words, players didn’t like how one’s financial situation could potentially determine how well they could do, as opposed to practice and skill.

Star Wars Battlefront 2 Loot Boxes

A lot of questions have since been raised about loot boxes, especially as they relate to children. Horror stories have gripped players across the world of children who end up spending thousands of dollars in a single year on loot boxes for games like Fortnite and FIFA. Is this considered gambling, though? Well, in the case of England and the United States, not according to the law. The Children’s Commissioner of England, Anne Longfield, is aiming to change that.

Her new study makes the argument that “If gaming is an online extension of children’s offline lives, then the rules should be the same”. What’s special about this study is the fact that Longfield took quotes and concerns from real children from ages 10 to 16 to build her argument. One quote in particular from a 16-year-old who plays FIFA states, “It takes a long time to get somewhere so you just do that [open player packs].” These games have a ton of popularity amongst a younger audience, and developers and publishers know this. However, they still insist on pushing these random chance mechanics for money. Longfield makes the claim, “In general, children do not have effective strategies to manage their online [spending].”

Fortnite Supply Llama

Furthermore, the study found that children feel “pressured to spend money on in-game purchases” because of YouTubers, streamers, friends, and online strangers. This is where Longfield touches on the toxicity of online gaming in the study. “Children say they feel embarrassed if they cannot afford new ‘skins,’ because then their friends see them as poor.” Additionally, “children notice a difference in friends’ behaviour when playing online games. This was fueled in part by the privacy of headsets and a perceived lack of consequences for teasing or bullying online.”

Not only can this report be treated as a PSA for online gaming, it’s a professional recommendation for policy changes in England. Longfield lists 15 items that she thinks should be introduced to a policy that could improve children’s experiences playing games and keep them safer from and knowledgeable about online behaviors. They all have a strong basis and are important, but there are some lines that stand out for the purposes of this news article.

Anne Longfield

Anne Longfield

The biggest ones are calls to action regarding the definition of gambling. “One obstacle to progress in this space is the current legal definition of gambling… amend… section 6 of the Gambling Act 2005 to regulate loot boxes as gambling.” Currently, the Gambling Act 2005 does cover loot boxes as gambling… except for one issue that is the main point of contention for this argument: the Act defines a “prize” as “money or money’s worth,” something that does not cover the items obtained from loot boxes in video games.

The United States’ laws are a bit less clear because gambling laws are left largely up to each individual state. The actual definition of “gambling” varies from state to state. For example, New York’s laws state that “gambling” is when “A person engages in gambling when he stakes or risks something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance… understanding that he will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.” However, Arizona defines it as “one act of risking or giving something of value for the opportunity to obtain a benefit from a game or contest of chance or skill…” Who’s to say what the terms “something of value” and “benefit” mean. Is a Fortnite skin a “benefit” or considered to have “value”? On one side of the coin, these things cannot be traded in for currency, so legally do they have any value? On the other side, if someone was willing to pay money in the first place for it, doesn’t that inherently give the skin value? Just about all states use language like this. The phrase could be “value,” “reward,” “benefit,” or something else, but there’s still that issue of whether or not these terms apply to in-game items.

Going off the heals of this issue, Longfield throws in that “spending should… not [be] linked to performance…” This addresses the issue presented by Battlefront II. Other proposed policy changes include the requirement for additional warnings to be put on games that have in-game purchases, something the ESRB in the U.S. has already done. There’s also a point made about “Maximum daily spend limits…” being included in games as a feature for children.

The report itself is roughly 36 pages long and covers what I have mentioned in further length, as well as explanations for each game discussed, how they performed the study, and what should be done about it all. While I’d be lying if I said I found the time to read the whole thing, I still highly recommend reading it if you can. At the very least, the first five pages are very important for understanding the goal of the study. This is a big step by Anne Longfield to help regulate the monetization of video games.

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