Gaming & Politics 2: Gambling

Posted on November 20, 2017

How close are some video games to gambling? Is gaming just one ‘b’ away from being immoral and exploitative? Do we need more regulation over the control that big companies wield on individuals through video game mechanics?

This is something we’ve looked at before, when the South Australian government ran a campaign with the headline ‘Gambling begins with games’. This made the gaming community quite upset, because in actual fact the issue was with simulated gambling games like Candy Crush Saga, not gaming per se.

This is the kind of campaign that made EA and Disney sit up and take notice.

The issue has come up again, but this time in terms of AAA Games like Star Wars: Battlefront II and Overwatch, and their ‘loot crate’ feature. In short, loot crates are a way to earn in-game items either via progression within the game (‘levelling up’) or by spending real money. The real money expenditure is the issue. Also, such in-game items can either be entirely cosmetic (as in Overwatch) or, more controversially, they may contribute to gameplay – i.e. give you more powerful weapons or access to limited items, characters, or abilities. This can lead to a widely-criticised ‘pay-to-win’ scenario where those who invest real money can beat players who have done the hard yards to progress through skill and experience. More seriously, it is open to accusations of exploitation through gambling mechanics and ‘grooming’ children for gambling addiction.

The issue exploded when the publishers of Star Wars: Battlefront II, Electronic Arts, announced details of the game’s loot crate system a few days prior to launch. It was widely seen as a crass money-grab, and even attracted more serious criticisms. So many people felt passionate about the issue that the discussion resulted in the most down-voted thread in the history of Reddit – this is the closest thing to ‘breaking the internet’ we have seen yet. Even an attempt at an open discussion via an AMA (Ask Me Anything) with the developers on Reddit didn’t assuage the anger of gamers. It clearly had an impact.

EA’s response to heavy critique was met with guarded respect but also plenty of cynicism.

Amazingly, the sustained campaign had such an effect that EA performed perhaps the most sensational backflip in recent PR history: they completed reversed their position and (temporarily) removed all micro transactions, leading to some heavy questions and even a drop in EA’s stock price of about 2.5%. Reports indicate that Disney (who owns the Star Wars brand) may have pressured EA to take action, unhappy with the negative press in general, and with being associated with gambling in particular. We hear very recently that early-day sales of Battlefront II are sharply down on those of the first entry in the rebooted franchise, which were widely held as lacklustre to begin with.

It’s all rather a big deal, really.

The key debate seems to revolve around whether micro-transactions or ‘in-app purchases’ can be considered gambling, and the extent to which they are exploitative of those with a tendency towards a gambling problem. The matter is serious enough that Belgian and Dutch authorities are investigating whether games such as Overwatch and Battlefront II should be considered gambling, and considering state regulation in response. The question is what form of regulation this might take.

There are a couple of points worth considering before we get too heated though. Both these games are rated M, which means they are already regulated to the extent that parents are advised that they are not suitable for players under 15. Moreover, to make these transactions players need a credit card, so they almost certainly their parents’ permission to proceed. There is already a fair bit of regulation around this issue such that it should really only affect consenting adults, so we need to be quite careful about suggesting additional regulation. Of course, we may argue that this regulation isn’t effective enough – some parents may be too permissive, or children may have access to funds without their parents’ knowing, but these are much broader matters of regulation that should be dealt with separately.

We should also consider the complexity and difficulty of regulating these matters, especially if driven by moral arguments. There is a good argument that gambling simulation mechanics should perhaps be taken account of in classification rating and recommendations, but beyond this it is difficult to imagine a way of dealing with it that is not draconian in one way or another. Not only games but all kinds of apps (including educational ones) across all platforms use these kinds of revenue streams, and it would certainly affect the way that many independent developers are able to publish games. In any case, the issue is not likely to disappear.

What are your thoughts? Would you be concerned about your children having access to games that had an element of chance in them? How do you manage you children’s consumption and digital purchases?What do you think can be done about this issue more broadly? Post in the comments below!

– Chad

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