If your child has played a digital game they have most likely come across something in-game to buy. More gems, rubies, stars, gold or lives.
The currency changes, but the problem remains – games can be expensive. Even if you can download them for free.
“How can free games cost so much?” you might ask. A study from Juniper Research says the gaming industry is predicted to have a value of over $160 billion by 2022. And 47 per cent of that will be generated from micro-transactions or in-app purchases such as loot boxes.
Loot boxes are virtual in-game content paid for using real money. They are animated boxes, all shiny, jumping up and down waiting to be opened on the shop screen to reveal several digital goodies.
Think of them as lucky-dip bags. Lucky-dip bags which are fast becoming illegal in several countries over concerns they promote an early route into gambling for children.
Each loot box contains a variety of in-game items. Anything from cosmetic skins, which change an avatar’s appearance, to unique voice emotes and animations, weapon designs and experience boosts.
In theory all items in a loot box can be earned by playing in-game, but this requires a lot more time and effort than simply buying them.
In today’s gaming, especially for kids, time is of the essence. If you are only allowed half an hour of screen time you don’t want to waste it. You want to get to the maximum level, have the best equipment and unlockables in the shortest space of time. With the click of a button you could potentially “have it all”.
The crux of loot boxes, however, is that the content given out is completely at random. Out of the five or so items you receive, some might be good, while all might be a total waste. You’re paying for the chance it will be useful.
New game content is oftentimes seasonal, which means skins and emotes are only available to buy for a short period of time.This sense of “urgency” is what makes loot boxes even more appealing. Imagine having a time limit within a time limit?
So what’s the cost? Generally loot boxes cost very little. In the multiplayer shooting game Overwatch, for example, two loot boxes will cost a player €1.99 in the PlayStation store.
This makes loot boxes seem relatively cheap. Hardly making up the 47 per cent of $160 billion the industry is projecting.
That is until you see the 50 loot box bundle for €39.99 deal, and realise this is probably a very popular item to buy. An item which still doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a single thing that you want.
There is now a debate around the world whether loot boxes are an early form of gambling.
Some think that children who buy loot boxes exhibit the same symptoms as traditional gambling. The roll of the dice, the high of waiting for the results, subsequent disappointment, but an urge to keep going until the right odds play out…or the money runs out.
Research from York St John’s University and University of York last November showed a relationship between loot box spending and problem gambling. It said regulation of loot boxes was appropriate and necessary, and countries should consider restricting access to loot boxes as if they were gambling, regardless of the definition.
This has already come into play in gaming. In Belgium, for example, FIFA 19 producer Electronic Arts (EA) had to stop selling "FIFA Points" for fear of criminal prosecution by the Belgian Gambling Commission.
Belgian authorities saw the loot box mechanic of the game as encouraging gambling, a point EA denies. The only way to earn loot boxes now in Belgium is by playing the game.
Countries such as the Netherlands, China, Japan and Australia have followed suit, and have all begun treating loot boxes as a form of gambling.
So where is Ireland on the issue of loot boxes?
Martin Heydon TD has raised the issue of loot boxes in the Dáil. Why does he feel Ireland needs to address this industry concern?
“It’s mainly the fact that these products are in the games played by young children, not always with a high level of parental supervision,” he says.
He adds that there is extra caution for those who are particularly susceptible to problem gambling down the line.
Yet with parents and governments still finding their footing in an industry that changes by the second, how can regulation ever hope to keep industries such as gaming in check?
With the Gambling Control Bill still before the Dáil, Heydon agrees that society will always be playing catch-up unless we take a flexible approach.
“The key component of the Gambling Control Bill is the agreement by Cabinet for it to include an independent ombudsman for the gambling sector that would have power to amend and establish new regulations. We’ll always be playing catch up if it is legislation alone.”
ADVICE FOR PARENTS
Ireland is part of the Pan-European game information system PEGI, which is a rating system used for video games.
Since the end of 2018, all games that offer the option to purchase digital goods with real currency have purchases descriptor from PEGI. Seeing this icon should give parents who may not be familiar with video games an expectation that there are in-game purchases available.
The PEGI app is a free-to-download parent guide on video games, and gives information on the content of games, potential issues, age ranges and presence of in-game purchases.
It also has a filter search which lets parents find suitable games for children.
There are also detailed instructions on how to set up parental control on gaming consoles, including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and more.