Few developments in gaming have caused as much controversy of late as the integration of loot boxes. In video game parlance, a loot box is an item you can purchase in-game, either by spending real money directly or by purchasing a specific type of currency, which can then be spent on loot boxes. They became popular in free-to-play mobile titles initially, but have made the jump to AAA console titles in recent years.
In 2018, several games were hammered for their inclusion of the mechanic, including Star Wars: Battlefront II, which attracted the lion’s share of the controversy and customer anger. In the wake of that event, counties like Belgium and states like Hawaii announced they would take up the issue and offer legislation that banned or cracked down on certain types of loot boxes, with some also calling on game companies to reveal the chances of winning loot. Now, the Netherlands has finished its own analysis and banned loot boxes from four of the 10 titles it examined.
The review found some positive data. Most people who buy loot boxes in gaming do not buy them in enormous quantities and do not seek to replace the experience of playing the game. As the study notes, “Players generally intend to play a game of skill, not to gamble.” The goal of the commission was to measure how risky various loot box systems actually were, and whether they encouraged players towards behavior seen as indicative of a gambling addiction. The report notes:
The risk potential very much depends on how the loot box is offered. The loot boxes with a higher score have integral elements that are similar to slot machines. With these loot boxes, there is very often a (higher) jackpot where the virtual goods are transferable, players can keep opening unlimited loot boxes, multiple visual and sound effects are added and a ‘near miss’ effect is used. According to this tool, the loot boxes with a higher score are comparable with blackjack or roulette in terms of addiction potential. According to this tool, the loot boxes with a lower score are comparable with small-scale bingo in terms of addiction potential.
Much of the report lays out basics that will be familiar to gamers. These include observations that skill and chance both play a role in earning loot in most games, that players respond to these opportunities differently depending on the title and the framing of the offer, and that clinical studies of whether loot boxes are akin to gambling haven’t yet been conducted (given how new the phenomenon is, this is understandable).
One major reason why four titles in question were banned from continuing to use loot boxes is because the items inside of them have direct monetary value and can be transferred to other sites. This is the kind of activity that made Counterstrike Go gambling problematic, for example. The games themselves, unfortunately, were not named as part of the report. It’s also apparently illegal to use games of chance in which the player has literally no control over what items they might receive. If the only point of playing is to create the illusion of skill where none exists (by asking players to choose a card to turn over first), this also still falls afoul of the Netherlands law.
Games that did not support the use of third-party marketplaces were not viewed as breaking existing Netherlands law — at least for now. The report notes:
Six of the ten loot boxes that were studied do not contravene the law. In these games, there is no question of in-game goods with a market value and they therefore do not satisfy the definition of a prize under Article 1 of the Betting and Gaming Act. As these loot boxes could nevertheless foster the development of addiction, these games are at odds with the objective of preventing addiction to organized games as much as possible.
For now, the Dutch are cracking down on the most egregious games that offer the ability to sell loot crate goods for real dollars. But they’re sounding a note of caution on other aspects of these programs, calling for a further study and an awareness that these games of chance can have harmful outcomes. And despite rampant dislike from the user community, under this determination, Battlefront II seems as though it would have been legal. Other reports suggest the four illegal titles are: FIFA 18, Dota 2, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and Rocket League.