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Children’s Commissioner calls for regulation of online gaming

Image credit: Dan Grytsku | Dreamstime.com

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has presented a report proposing regulations to ensure that children playing online games are not lured into gambling with ‘loot box’ offers.

Longfield’s office commissioned a research company to speak to groups of children about their positive and negative experiences of gaming, in order to inform policy recommendations.

The report, Gaming the System [PDF], acknowledges that children generally have good experiences with online gaming, not just having fun but also making new friends and building skills such as strategy, teamwork, and creativity. The children said that they consider shared online experiences such as multiplayer games to be just as important to their social lives as offline experiences.

While most children had a healthy relationship with gaming, a small number said that they felt out of control of the amount of time they spent gaming, displaying some addictive behaviours such as compulsion to continue gaming despite having other priorities. Some children complained about encouraging extensions of offline negative experiences, such as bullying, scams, or being mocked for not being able to afford premium products (such as paid-for skins).

The report focuses heavily on spending in online games, stating that “monetisation is where online gaming starts to look less like ‘play’ and more like gambling” and warning that children do not usually have effective strategies in place for managing their spending. The study found that children can spend hundreds of pounds on loot boxes - in-game purchases which provide a random selection of items which are occasionally helpful for progressing in gameplay – and show troubling behaviour by trying to recover financial losses through more purchases in pursuit of rewards. The report calls for changes to the 2005 Gambling Act to reflect the addition of gambling elements to children’s games like the FIFA series in the form of ‘loot boxes’.

“If gaming is an online extension of the children’s offline lives, then the rules should be the same,” the report says. “Given that gambling is now allowed in children’s offline lives, its presence in their online lives requires close attention.”

The report suggested that maximum daily spend limits – switched on by default for child gamers – could prevent these purchases spiralling out of control. It has also called for developers and platforms to put an end to ‘pay to win’ loot box purchases, with spending limited to items not essential for gameplay progress, such as new skins.

The report also called for bringing ‘financial harm’ within the scope of the government’s anticipated online harms legislation.

The addition of loot boxes to highly popular games like Overwatch, Star Wars Battlefront, and Fortnite has led to widespread criticism from gamers and lawmakers. Some loot box offers have been classified as a form of gambling in Belgium – placing them under gambling regulations – with governments of other countries considering similar classification. In July, the UK’s Gambling Commission stated that it could not regulate loot box sales as they do not meet the legal definition of gambling (cannot be monetised).

Responding to criticism, some game developers have announced that loot boxes will not appear in upcoming versions of popular titles like Rocket League and Call of Duty.  

In a statement, Longfield said: “With 93 per cent of children in the UK playing video games, it is vital that the enjoyment they get comes with tighter rules that protect them from straying into gambling. Playing games online can be rewarding and exciting and help children to develop strategic skills and friendships, but they are also open to exploitation by games companies who play on their need to keep up with friends and to advance to further stages of a game by encouraging children to spend on lot boxes.”

“Children have told us they worry they are gambling when they buy loot boxes, and it’s clear some children are spending hundreds of pounds chasing their losses,” she continued. “I want the government to classify loot boxes in games like FIFA as a form of gambling. A maximum daily spend limit for children would also be reassuring for parents and children themselves.”

The report also calls for game companies and platforms to share anonymised data – such as about gameplay time – with independent researchers. Academics such as the Oxford Internet Institute’s Professor Andrew Przybylski have argued that lack of access to data severely restricts the ability of researchers to study online behaviour, as they must instead rely on self-reported data. An Oxford Internet Institute study on online gaming behaviour published last week questioned whether gaming could be considered a root cause of mental illness, suggesting that excessive time spent gaming may instead be a symptom of poor mental wellbeing.

Report author Simone Vibert commented: “For too long policymakers have focused their attention on the social media giants. This research shows that for many children, online gaming is just as important in their lives and poses a distinct set of benefits and risks.”

“It is striking to hear children themselves say that what they sometimes participate in looks and feels like gambling and that they don’t always feel able to control the amount of time they spend online playing,” she said. “as the government continues to develop its online harms proposals, it is vital that the particular nature of online games is addressed and that the duty of care protects all children online, across all the platforms they spend time on.”

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