Yesterday the headline “Belgium Says Loot Boxes are Gambling, Wants Them Banned in Europe” appeared on PC Gamer and was promptly posted to reddit where it gained almost 25k upvotes. However, the sensational headline is not quite true (and the article has since been edited to reflect this).
If you have been following gaming related news lately, you have likely encountered the controversy around loot boxes sparked by the release of EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront 2. Some of the content of the game can only be accessed by purchasing loot boxes that contain random items, and this decision was not well received in what is already a $60 game. Although other games have implemented loot box systems with some success lately, Overwatch being a notable example, the steep prices and grinding required in Battlefront 2 (along with some of the latent discontent with EA’s business practices) made the game a catalyst for discourse around loot boxes.
Loot boxes are different from regular micro-transactions because the player does not have any control over the rewards they receive. This has caused some critics to argue that they should be classified as gambling, but so far the guaranteed return and lack of real-world value has caused organizations like the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to consider them “not gambling”. If the ESRB considered loot boxes gambling. If any legal body decides that the practice is in fact gambling, this would have severe consequences for a lot of games. Gambling is restricted by age in most countries, and may also have restrictions on advertisement and marketing. This is why the Belgian case is important to games as a whole.
The Belgian Gaming Comission is a governmental body that reports to the Belgian Justice Department on issues concerning games and gambling. On the 15th of November they announced that they were launching an investigation into the loot boxes of Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (Article in Dutch), stating that “if there is a game of chance, it is not possible without a permit from the Gaming Commission.”
Then, on the 22nd of November the PC Gamer story emerged quoting the commission’s statement that “The mixing of money and addiction is gambling” and the justice minister’s response: “We have to go to Europe, but we will try to ban it”. This, of course, seems pretty damning for the loot crates, but it is not quite that clear cut.
Possibly due to poor translations and the unclear language in the initial report (Dutch again) this was interpreted as the commission making a decision. What the statement was actually saying was more akin to this: “we will consider loot boxes gambling if there is a mixing of money and addiction” and the justice minister’s response was more like “if this is gambling, it preys on children especially and I would like to see it banned.”
It seems like EA can breathe a sigh of relief, for now. The commission is still working on their investigation and won’t ban loot crates in Europe anytime soon. However, the stakes are pretty clear: if there are gambling mechanics, Belgium will attempt to ban the game in Europe.