The Blurred Line Between Video Games and Gambling

Sarah Corrigan

Mar 10, 2018

 - UBUD -

Controversy surrounds the newest Star Wars video game, which was released on 14th November in the US. Star Wars: Battlefront II is the latest in the series of Star Wars-branded games released by Electronic Arts, under license from Disney. Upon the game’s release to beta players, it was quickly hit with complaints – mainly regarding the game’s loot crate system, where players could obtain crates using ‘crystals’ which had been purchased with real money through ‘microtransactions’. Some of these loot crates contained higher-level playable characters, giving players who paid for and won these prizes an advantage against players who had not paid for or won them and had instead chosen to ‘grind’ – a manual way of earning crystals by playing the game for a set amount of time (for some of the higher-level characters, it could take as much as 40 hours of grinding to unlock them).

An unfair advantage, yes, especially when considering that the game already costs about $60 to buy without any add-ons, downloadable content or loot crates – but where does gambling come into it? Well, it concerns the nature of the loot crates. The prizes that can be won in the loot crates are randomised, and players need to purchase crystals with real-world money to buy them. In that regard, the loot crate system has a lot in common with games such as online slots, which are also a game of chance.

There has also been controversy around online gambling sites and games that use designs and themes that could be construed as advertising to children – slot games such as Fluffy Favourites, which uses soft toys in its theme, have been under fire for their childlike aesthetics. So a game such as Star Wars: Battlefront II, which is based around a franchise that is known as family friendly, courts a similar kind of controversy, by directing appealing to children’s tastes.

EA disagree that

EA disagree that Star Wars: Battlefront II encourages children to gamble, noting that the game has received a T for Teen rating by the ESRB, meaning that the game is not recommended for young children. In-game purchases also require the use of a valid credit card, and EA suggests that concerned parents should use filters and tools on their consoles to combat any unauthorised purchase attempts. However, the backlash has led EA to temporarily remove loot crates from the game. Star Wars: Battlefront II executive producer at DICE, John Wasilczyk, said that the company would continue to develop the loot crate system in light of the negative reception. “I think this concern has come through loud and clear,” he said.

Belgium’s Gaming Commission has recently announced that it will attempt to ban loot crates in games sold in Europe, as they have ruled blind microtransactions as gambling. The commission sees loot crates as “the mixing of money and addiction”, which means they should be treated like online slots or slot machines. Koen Geens, the Belgian Minister of Justice, said “Mixing gambling and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for the mental health of the child.”

Chris Lee, state representative of Hawaii, has also recently proposed legislation that would ban the sale of games featuring loot crates to anyone under the age of 21 – meaning that games such as Star Wars: Battlefront II and Overwatch would be illegal for teenagers or children to play.

However, in the US, games must fulfil three criteria to be legally considered gambling: consideration, prize and chance. Money used to pay to participate in a game is the consideration – in Star Wars: Battlefront II, this would be the money players convert to crystals to purchase loot crates. The item offered in the crate would be the prize. Chance is any random element that can affect winning – and the loot crate prizes are determined by the game’s randomiser.

But the water is muddied when it comes to games such as poker, which are considered as games of skill in some states, and charitable games such as church bingo nights are considered legal because they have heavy regulation and fund non-profit organisations. It’s rare that video games are ever considered gambling, as they’re usually regarded as games of skill, and their prizes have no cash value.

Following this line of reasoning, the UK Gambling Commission has determined that loot boxes are not considered gambling under British law. As the prizes can only be used in the game in which they are purchased, and cannot be exchanged for money, they do not fulfil the criteria of “licensable gambling activity”. However, the commission expressed concerns over the game system, noting that “the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred.”

And the backlash against EA is taking a toll – the company has suffered a wipe-out of $3 billion in stock, as shareholders pull out amidst the controversy. The game is expected to make considerably less than was originally expected through microtransactions, but however, Electronic Arts shares are still up 39 percent year to date through Tuesday in anticipation of future profits stream from micro-transactions – so while the fuss has certainly made an impact, it’s likely not the end of microtransactions in their games just yet.