UK government urges greater action over loot boxes, but stops short of ban

| By Robert Fletcher
Great Britain’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has called on game developers to take greater action over so-called loot boxes in video games to ensure greater protection for children and young people.

DCMS in 2020 launched a call for evidence on loot boxes, an in-game feature where players can purchase a box with real money which allows them to receive random items such as power-ups to help a player compete better in the game, as well as cosmetic items including virtual clothing.

However, concerns have been raised over these features and their potential similarity with gambling, with players risking real money without knowing what they will receive in return.

The call for evidence found that players who have purchased loot boxes may be more likely to experience gambling, mental health, financial and problem gaming-related harms, with this risk higher for children and young people. 

DCMS noted some game developers and platforms such as Xbox have already taken steps to improve protections, such as including options that require parental permission for under-18s to spend money within games. 

However, the department said it now wants to build on this with stronger protections for children across the entire games industry and could consider new legislation if developers do not bring in sufficient measures to keep players safe.  

The government department will urge games companies and platforms to provide spending controls and transparent information to all players, with the protections supporting the minority of players who spend a disproportionate amount of money on loot boxes and as such may be at greater risk.

To support this, DCMS plans to form a new working group featuring games developers, platforms and regulatory bodies to develop industry-led measures to protect players and reduce the risk of harm. Potential measures could include parental controls and making transparent information available to all players. 

The body added that its call for evidence also uncovered a need for better evidence to improve understanding of the positive and negative impacts of video games, and as such will launch a Video Games Research Framework to support this.

“We want to stop children going on spending sprees online without parental consent, spurred on by in-game purchases like loot-boxes,” Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said. “Games companies and platforms need to do more to ensure that controls and age-restrictions are applied so that players are protected from the risk of gambling harms. 

“Children should be free to enjoy gaming safely, whilst giving parents and guardians the peace of mind they need.”

Jo Twist, chief executive of the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment, said that she welcomed the proposal, saying she was keen to work with the government to ensure greater protection for video players.

“As a responsible industry, we have committed to exploring additional ways to support players and parents to build on our existing work developing and raising awareness of parental controls,” Twist said.

“We look forward to engaging closely with the government and other organisations in the working group and on the Video Games Research Framework.”

Richard Wilson, chief executive of TIGA, a non-profit trade association representing the UK’s games industry, added: “TIGA believes that games businesses should aim to ensure that games are safe to use for all players. In 2020, TIGA formally adopted its Five Principles for Safeguarding Players, designed to embody the spirit of the approach that games companies should adopt in operating their businesses within the UK. 

“Children and young people should not be able to buy ‘loot boxes’ in video games without parental consent. TIGA also believes that vulnerable adults need to be protected against potential harms arising from loot boxes. 

“TIGA looks forward to contributing to DCMS’s planned working group to advance measures to protect players from potential harms.”

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