If you've been following the saga of 'loot boxes' in games and their legal position for the past few years, you'll know that it's been back and forth multiple times now. One body will decide that they're not a form of gambling and therefore they're legal, and another body will subsequently determine that they're gambling after all, and therefore ought to be regulated. The issue gets kicked between regulatory authorities multiple times without anything seeming to be done about it, and in the meantime, gaming companies continue to release games that contain loot boxes. Now, the United Kingdom finally appears to be ready to make a ruling on the issue.
The case against loot boxes is simple to state, and simple to understand. When a player uses real money to buy an in-game loot box, they're parting with that money in return for a reward of uncertain value. It might be that they get something that's worth more than what they've paid, or it might be that they don't. That's the same basic principle that drives every slot on every single online slots website you could imagine. In the United Kingdom, it's perfectly legal to play Nextgen online slots and run online slots websites, but they're licensed and subject to regulation. Loot boxes, despite their obvious similarities to online slots, are not. Excluding them from regulation has always been a contentious issue, and now one of the most important bodies in the country has decided it won't tolerate the situation any longer.
In what looks set to become a landmark ruling, the Gambling Committee of the UK's House of Lords has stated that loot boxes are games of chance, and as with other games of chance, they're subject to the country's Gambling Act of 2005. That would mean that any gaming company that wants to include loot boxes in products that are sold in the UK would need to have them licensed, and crucially would not be permitted to sell its products to children. That would prompt an enormous change of strategy from some of the biggest video game manufacturers in the world.
The UK is one of the world's biggest gaming markets, and if a change had to be made in the UK, it would likely affect policy and practice in terms of how games are made for the rest of the world. In what might be even worse news for the companies that rely on loot boxes for part of their income, the committee's chairman has stated that a ban on loot boxes could be enacted immediately because it wouldn't require any further legislation. The Gambling Act already exists, and so as it's been determined that offending games fall foul of the Gambling Act, they could be removed from store shelves instantly. They could also be blocked from being downloaded by anybody based in the United Kingdom. Such an order has not yet been given, but in theory, one could arrive at any time now that the House of Lords has reached its verdict.
Of all the gaming franchises that could be affected by such a ban, the Electronic Arts "FIFA" series of soccer games is the highest-profile. Creating successful "ultimate teams" within the game is a central part of the game's longevity and also a huge money earner for Electronic Arts. Without that lifeline, the "Ultimate Team" mode itself could disappear completely, and EA's resources could be severely diminished. If that were to happen, the company might find that few people display much sympathy. Loot boxes have been despised by players and family groups for several years now, and most informed sources predicted some time ago that a ban was inevitable.
Although the UK is the most important country (in gaming terms) to make such a proclamation about loot boxes, it is not the first. Belgium was the first country in Europe to ban loot boxes in 2018 and hasn't relented on that ban in the two years since. Late in 2019, PEGI - the organization responsible for providing age restriction advice and warnings on game packaging - stated that they would label any game that contained loot boxes in the future. The writing has been on the wall for a long time, and it's to be hoped that the majority of responsible video game manufacturers have read it and taken appropriate action. EA has almost finished work on the 2021 edition of the "FIFA" game. It's not yet known whether loot boxes or any similar mechanisms have been included within it. If they have, EA might be facing a race against the clock to remove the boxes from the game before the next soccer season begins.
The fear of groups who support tighter restrictions on loot boxes is that they create young gamblers. A video gamer who has grown up paying for loot boxes since they were eleven years old - or even younger - automatically has an understanding of how online slots and other games of chance work, but (presumably) have never had to spend their own money on them because their parents cover their bills. As such, they may struggle to act responsibly when presented with the opportunity to play ‘real' gambling games as they reach adulthood. Video gaming companies disagree with this view, but as we're seeing in an increasing number of rulings around the world, they appear to be losing the argument. For a ban to be implemented in the UK, the House of Parliament would have to concur with the House of Lords' assessment by way of a vote on the issue. It may currently be benefiting gaming companies that the country - like all countries - currently has more significant issues to address, and so the matter isn't presently considered to be a priority. Should the question arrive in front of elected officials in Parliament, though, history suggests that they're unlikely to disagree with the verdict of the House of Lords.
Taking all of this into account, we have to ask ourselves whether loot boxes have a future in video games in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in the world. If we were inclined to gamble, we'd probably bet against it.