Did you know that the UK had a “Children’s Commissioner”? This American didn’t, but it is apparently a post in the government, and the current office-holder is Anne Longfield, who “promotes and protects the rights of children, especially the most vulnerable, and stands up for their views and interests.”
Today she produced a lengthy report about gaming habits of British children, titled “Gaming the System.” Its purpose, as stated in brief summary on the Commissioner’s website, is for the nation to make “changes to gambling laws” to account for the monetization of video games.
In the report, Longfield laid out several of the social advantages and disadvantages of online gaming, which she acknowledges as being similar to those experienced in offline activities. She does, however, call for “limiting the role of money” in games, particularly for the government to “take immediate action to amend the definition of gaming in section 6 of the Gambling Act 2005 to regulate loot boxes as gambling,” as well as calling for “an additional warning to be displayed for games which facilitate in-game spending.” She also suggested parents take a larger role in speaking with their children about the importance of balancing their expenditures of time and money in games.
In particular, while we tend to focus on the “pay to win” competitive aspects of loot boxes, we don’t usually take into account the “competitive” aspects of cosmetics. Longfield, who engaged several children ages 10-16 in focus groups split up by game (Minecraft, Call of Duty, Fortnite, FIFA, Roblox), reported that many children felt compelled to spend money due to peer pressure or to avoid ridicule:
In the Fortnite group, children felt that they should spend money on skins to prevent being seen in the free default skin. The default skin is seen not only as making someone “uncool”, but is a marker of being a ‘poor kid’, and is therefore something to be avoided.
In closing, Longfield re-iterated her wish that loot boxes be regulated as gambling, as her colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee did last month. She dismissed the “you can’t cash out” argument often raised by the ESA as fallacious — not only in the case of third-party sites that allow for such monetary transactions but also in the sense that “the argument fails to recognise the value placed by children on winning certain items, even when those items cannot be cashed out for money.” Given the pressure now being put on by multiple offices in the UK, it seems inevitable that her recommendations will someday be codified into law.