A month ago, a woman known online as CadenceLikesVG realized that she had a gambling problem. She was not playing blackjack or pulling the levers of slot machines ; she opened loot boxes of video games.
"I can not do that anymore. That's a problem, "said Cadence last month in an article on Reddit, which wanted to remain anonymous. "But I can not spend money on PoE because I know it's a slippery slope that will not stop until I've spent everything."
"Because my brain is screwed up."
Way of exile (PoE) is a free role-playing game that sells loot boxes. Developed and published by the New Zealand studio Grinding Gear Games, it was acquired by the Chinese technology company Tencent last May. Despite the acquisition, most players see developers as an independent fashion outfit. It's a stereotypical RPG, borrowing enough from the Diablo series for some players to consider him as the spiritual successor of the game.
"The house always wins."
The game runs by seasons, with new items allowing users to customize their character's material that arrives in the game store every three months or so. Each box of booty costs about US $ 3 to open, but it is rare to withdraw the item of your choice during your first, second or even third purchase.
Once the season is over, many items in the mystery boxes are placed in the store so that people can buy them directly, but these direct transactions are expensive, too. Any armor could cost a player hundreds of dollars.
"People tend to jump into the coffers thinking they have an agreement, but that 's not how gambling works," Cadence said. "The house always wins."
Cadence said The edge that on all the equipment she was able to realize, the minimum amount of money she spent was about $ 140. The maximum was $ 400, and she did not receive all the items available in the game that season. That's when she decided she had enough.
She sent an email to the developers asking for help. "Would it be possible to disable my ability to purchase mystery boxes entirely? I have a serious impulse [problems], Writes Cadence. Promptly, the developers responded, and after a brief exchange of emails, they prevented her ability to buy the mystery boxes and refused to reactivate her until August 2019, date she specified herself. This is similar to the voluntary exclusion policies imposed by many casino control boards, but it is a new phenomenon in video games.
One user spent more than $ 10,000 in chests over several years
Grinding Gear Games, the studio behind Path of the exiles, did not respond to repeated requests for comments.
"I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but my attempts to reach the goal were an attempt to have my cake and eat it too. I wanted to support the game I love, without supporting their horrible business practices, "said Cadence, referring to the treasure chests. "But honestly, they wanted to say no to my request, I would have uninstalled the game and stopped, without ever going back."
The problem is much more important than Cadence. The forums are filled with similar stories featuring hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, lost due to poor pulse control. Some players have suffered from gambling addiction in the past, and now this disease has manifested itself through random online shopping. A Reddit user, who goes through Kensgold online, admitted to having spent more than $ 10,000 in loot boxes in various games in recent years.
Last year, discussions on the regulation of surprise boxes seemed well underway. State and federal legislators proposed legislation, sought research, and encouraged regulators to investigate the practice. But as the talks heated up, the government ended its activities and the investigating agency had to hold back, its employees being transferred. The government has been reopened for more than a month, but after nearly a year of investigation and unsuccessful bills, regulatory negotiations have boggled.
Some countries in the European Union have already started to act. Last September, the European Forum of Gaming Regulators (GREF) issued a statement signed by regulators from 15 different EU countries, concerned about this practice. Last May, the Belgian Gaming Commission decided that the box of surprises was governed by its law on gambling. Studios such as Blizzard, Valve and EA all removed the boxes of objects from their games in these countries. With concern spreading all over Europe, it started to ignite in the United States, but that momentum is stalled and the lobbying efforts of the video game industry in this industry of 30 billions of dollars seem to have hindered any tangible progress in regulating the sale of surprise boxes.
Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) was the strongest supporter of Congress for regulating the trunk. Last year, Hassan received a note from an elector who was concerned about the marketing of gambling transactions by the video game industry. In November, at a hearing of the Trade Committee with Federal Trade Commission officials, Hassan asked the agency to open an investigation into the surprise boxes.
"It is time for the FTC to study these mechanisms to ensure that children are properly protected," Hassan said last November. "And to educate parents about the potential for addiction and other negative impacts of these games." FTC President Joe Simons agreed that the practice should be investigated.
"We really need to look at how these surprise boxes are designed and marketed."
In an interview with The edgeHassan did not explain in detail how she would like to regulate the multi-billion dollar industry, but she said consumers, especially children, should be protected. "At the moment, I particularly want to emphasize that we need to ensure, especially for young players, that consumer protections are in place to ensure transparency and awareness. And we really have to look at how these surprise boxes are designed and marketed to make sure they are not predatory, "said Hassan.
While the government was closed, the FTC did not have enough funds to support its investigations and was forced to put them on hold. This included everything he could have opened in looted chests. After the reopening of the agency last month, Hassan sent a letter asking for an update: "I understand that you have started taking initial steps to open an investigation," she said. "With this appreciation in mind, I ask for an update."
The FTC's investigation has not been announced, the agency is issuing a public report on its findings, or officials are considering declaring any rules governing the video game industry and the vaults. The FTC declined to comment.
"Chests are an eloquent example of the need to update our law on gambling."
If the FTC's investigation was to determine that the surprise boxes are an unfair or deceptive practice, the body could potentially declare a new rule that would affect the entire gaming sector. However, it has been several decades since the organization imposed this type of general regulation and many of its repressive powers have since been considerably weakened. All of the FTC's investigations are progressing slowly and the agency has been tasked with more than it currently has sufficient resources to manage in recent years.
If the legislation and regulations in force were too problematic, the courts might be forced to determine whether the surprise boxes were below the prevailing gambling regulations. The legal age of gambling varies in the country. (Between 18 and 21 years), and when it comes to regulating loot boxes, the main concern is whether children should be able to pay for them.
According to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, current US gambling laws date back to the 17th century. And while many of the mechanisms used in baggage compartments are already regulated, it may be more effective to introduce gambling laws in the 21st century. "In the era of new technologies, massive updates are needed and the surprise boxes are an eloquent example of the need to update our gaming laws and regulations," said Whyte.
However, California-based Jay Obernolte, owner of a video game studio and advocate of surprise boxes, believes that most of these scandals could be solved if platform owners like Apple and Google included more parental control settings for microtransactions. "I wish they had better parental controls on these online microtransactions. For me, this is part of a more general question of whether we should involve parents more in these purchasing decisions, "he said. "I think the answer is yes."
Boxes of loot have been around since the early 2000s, gradually moving towards a system of uninterrupted purchases in the application. The model was popularized by Japanese gacha mobile games in early 2010. In these games, the player can normally receive and play as in the game by "shooting" or "spinning" the gacha, which often looks like a slot machine or roulette machine.
As Western studios emerged, the model changed to something less explicitly casino-like. A booty chest has become a randomly abandoned item, a virtual crate in which players pay real money to open it. These crates may contain various objects in play. Some change the appearance of their characters, such as outfits or weapon appearances, and in some cases they may help someone to progress faster. in one part.
"They do not play … the player makes the decision."
At first, the practice was limited to free games, which required money from the loot box to finance the development. But in recent years, bigger studios like Blizzard and Electronic Arts (EA) have started joining mechanisms similar to popular titles such as Overwatch and Battlefront it costs between $ 30 and $ 60 by themselves.
The reaction against loot boxes reached its peak when EA released its highly anticipated title Star Wars Battlefront II in November 2017. Even in beta testing, players were unhappy with how the game was using chests. Not only did the boxes drop unnecessary skins and accessories, but users were required to spend real money to move the game forward significantly. Players used "star cards" to improve their basic stats. Without them, they had no chance of winning matches online. At that point, you could buy the boxes with the motto of the game, but EA made the acquisition difficult for the players. Even if the game costs $ 60, buying real money box games is the only real option if players want to stay ahead of their online rivals.
The indignation lasted for months. "This crate crate system is exactly what you'll find in a free game for which you would not pay any dollars," said famous video game commentator YouTuber and Angry Joe in a video. "The shit you get from the crate is awful. It's annoying. It's crappy. "
"We should not let Star Wars influence your kids to play."
After the scandal, Hawaii's state legislators made one of the most important attempts at change: they introduced four bills that would set rules for the gaming sector in the area of gaming. lockers and microtransactions. A pair would have prohibited anyone under the age of 21 to buy the cashier with real money. The other two would have forced video game publishers to publicly disclose the probability rates of receiving rewards. Both sets finally failed.
"As a passionate gamer in my life, it has been very frustrating to see the business model of the industry begin to move from creating and selling quality products to creating products that exploit players." , said Chris Lee, representative of the state of Hawaii. helped launch this discussion in the legislature.
But soon after the introduction of the bills, the industry began to publicly assert that the mechanisms of the box of surprises did not look like the game at all. Lee was surprised by the dispute. "I grew up playing games all my life," he said last year. "I have watched first-hand the evolution of the sector, moving from an industry that seeks to create new things to a sector that is starting to exploit people, especially children, to maximize profits." . "
It was around this time that the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) began to argue that the surprise boxes were a "voluntary" feature. "They do not play," replied ESA at about the same time as Hawaii lawmakers began to search the boxes. "Depending on the design of the game, some loot boxes are won and others can be bought. In some games, they contain elements that help the player to progress in the video game. In others, these are optional features and are not needed to progress or succeed in the game. In either case, the player makes the decision. "
But Hawaii lawmakers did not accept the arguments of the industry. "We have not allowed Joe Camel to encourage our children to smoke, and we should not allow Star Wars to influence your kids to play," said at a press conference Sean Quinlan, godfather of Hawaii's legislation.
The heart of the problem is whether baggage chests should be considered as a game or a kind of mini-game. Anti-gambling activists claim that the boxes of mimics imitate mechanisms similar to those found in casinos, such as slot machines and lotteries. At the same time, the gaming industry claims that the virtual and voluntary nature of these transactions means that they should not be subject to gaming laws.
"Chests are not gambling because players always receive something of value that enhances their experience," said Stanley Pierre-Louis, acting president and CEO of ESA. The edge. "A player can play a whole video game without having to buy a single loot box. In many cases, a loot box simply allows a user to retrieve a cosmetic item in the game. Loot boxes often enhance the experience of those who choose to use them and are only part of many unique experiences that video games offer. "
But if the courts were compelled to determine, through a class action, whether the baggage chests were below the current playing field, critics believe that judges would have a hard time finding the reason why they should not be covered.
"Their business model would be seriously threatening if they came under any kind of regulation or gambling oversight."
Ryan Morrison, who is known as the online video game attorney, argued that letterboxes already fulfilled the definition of gambling in all states of the country. "You put something of value, your money, and you buy something that is likely to ignore you, it's a chance, and you get something you like or you do not value" , Morrison said. "These are the three factors in the 50 states and I would say that most baggage chests are already defined as games of chance, and that if things went wrong and that a government agency wanted to sue them or if someone One wanted to bring them to court. "
If criticism continued, a recent opinion from the Department of Justice could pose an even greater threat. In January, the DOJ re-evaluated a 2011 notice on the cable law, saying all online gambling was now illegal. For the moment, it is not clear if the mechanisms in the vaults are similar to those in the games to be able to be governed by the American law in force on the games. However, if a government agency decides to change the existing regulations, the sector may be forced to make sudden and dramatic changes. If someone – whether it be the FTC, Congress or the courts – officially considered chests as a game, the gambling industry could generate billions of dollars. annual revenues, which could disastrate the current economic model of the sector.
The new opinion still allows exceptions for some online gambling, but it primarily allows states like New Jersey to develop their own laws to allow online gambling within their borders. Intercalated online gambling may be legal, but since video game studios operate around the world, they may be forced to sell surprise chests in states that already allow online casinos. "Their business model would be seriously threatening if they fell under any kind of regulation or oversight of the game," Whyte said. "Because in the regulated gaming space, you can not do most of what they do. Online, it must be reserved for people living in a given state. "
The industry has started to self-regulate, but the new rules are pretty weak compared to those asked by some critics. In response to the indignation that followed Battlefront IIESA's Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has announced that it will begin to disclose micro-labeled games with a new label. "You may have noticed that we have been a bit silent about the in-game shopping and loot boxes," said ESRB in a statement last February. "But we listened." However, this new label does not just mean that surprise boxes are included in the game, but additional downloadable content (DLC) is represented by the same label. The downloadable content is the same for everyone, and it is not a matter of chance, like surprise boxes.
Some studios have themselves adopted more transparent practices, like those of Riot Games, which publishes one of the most broadcast games on Twitch, League of Legends (LoL). In LoLusers know how likely they are to receive some type of object from lost items. However, no law in the United States or rules imposed by the video game industry guarantee that all studios disclose dropout rates.
Studios are unlikely to be required to disclose their odds or prohibit minors from paying for surprise boxes in the near future. "A framework of self-regulation already exists," said Pierre-Louis. "The ESRB has a long tradition of informing players, parents and guardians about the content of video games."
But until a solution is offered, people like Cadence will continue to be trained in free games, believing that one more box will drop the item they are looking for.
"When your brain works like mine, you can not stop," Cadence said. "There's always the little voice from the back of your head that says," Yeah, no, you should have quit 30 years ago, "but even when you say stop, you always click on buy, and you always open boxes.