Game Over for Microtransactions

Jared Rushe

It is rare these(big/ complicated words don’t work in articles) for a household with children to remain unequipped with a video game console or something similar in 2022. The growing popularity of online games such as FIFA and Call Of Duty has birthed a new phenomenon in the virtual space, commonly known as microtransactions. However, there is growing concern that the rise of these monetized luck-based mechanics are exposing the youth of today to legalised gambling.

The gaming industry is one of the most dominant components of the Irish economy and its revenue is continuing to grow. revenue in the Irish video games segment is expected to reach €161 million in 2022 According to the latest projections .

As the scale of corporations such as Electronic Arts and Activision exponentially increases, their moral responsibilities surely should adjust accordingly. Game developers have a duty to provide consumers with a fun, fair and secure virtual environment. The presence of microtransactions in most current titles is a clear indicator that these large establishments are fueled by greed and not the best interests of their customers.

For those unfamiliar with online gaming, microtransactions are in-game payments made with real-life currency in exchange for some form of virtual currency. Microtransactions continue to grow in popularity amongst players and publishers alike with in-game spending expected to surpass 65 million dollars in 2022.

The sale of ‘loot boxes’ is by far the most lucrative yet controversial form of online transaction. This practice involves the payment of real money for the chance of obtaining a rare in-game item to gain a competitive or cosmetic advantage. Along with promoting a ‘pay-to-win’ gaming environment, loot boxes are viewed by many as an unregulated form of gambling. Last year, EA Sports earned a reported $1.62 billion of revenue from loot box driven game modes such as FIFA Ultimate Team. As with any other form of betting, there is no guarantee that a player will receive the desired outcome. Usually, they are left with a relatively worthless playable item or wearable skin ensuring that ‘the house always wins’.

Loot boxes psychologically exploit consumers based on the same principles as a slot machine, both modelled on a concept known as a ‘Skinner Box’. This was a device originally designed by B.F. Skinner to analyse animal behaviour, concluding that when a behaviour was followed by a reward, the animal was incentivized to repeat the behaviour.

Although loot boxes have yet to be legally recognised as a form of gambling, it has been established by several research studies that there is a clear link between the two. A report published by ‘Be Gamble Aware’ concluded that loot boxes have been connected to problem gambling behaviours in twelve separate studies. Yet, the legislation that exists currently in Ireland allows for children as young as the age of three to engage in this practice.

Any objection to the sale of loot boxes has been strongly opposed by large game publishers who remain unwavering in their stance that loot boxes do not constitute a form of gambling. In an interview with Eurogamer, Electronic Arts Chief Experience Officer, Chris Bruzzo has claimed that because the in-game purchases cannot be cashed-out for real currency they cannot be classified as gambling. Publishers have also likened the ‘surprise mechanics’, a term they use to describe these microtransactions, found in loot-boxes to those used in trading card games and Kinder Eggs. However, there is no scientific evidence to confirm these comparisons and there is no basis to legislate based on apparent similarities alone.

Action has already been taken in a few jurisdictions to outlaw the sale of loot boxes. Belgium has become the first country to outlaw the practice and looks set to be closely followed by a host of European nations. A committee told the UK House of Commons in 2019 that loot boxes should be categorised as a form of gambling under law. Despite this, any impactful changes are still in a very early stage of the legislative process.

Significantly, Ireland appears to be lagging behind in terms of taking effective action to combat the spread of problem gambling in gaming. A ‘Spotlight’ report compiled by the Oireachtas in 2020 advised the Irish government that “loot boxes should be brought within the definition of gambling under Irish law” and “age ratings and advertisements of games containing microtransactions should be thoroughly reviewed”. This guidance has yet to be acted upon and Ireland remains without “a gambling regulator, a digital safety commission or any other independent expert body responsible for determining whether loot boxes ought to be regulated as a form of gambling”.

By criminalising the sale of loot boxes to children, the Irish government can prevent a rise in gambling addictions throughout Ireland and ensure a more safe and enjoyable gaming experience.

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