The practice of selling access to various in-game items has become both commonplace and controversial. Last week, the state of Washington joined with 15 European Union countries to declare their increasing concern with what it calls “the blurring of lines between gambling and other forms of digital entertainment such as video gaming.”
The declaration, published on the United Kingdom’s Gambling Commission website, aims to begin a dialogue between regulators and game developers. It identifies four particular areas of concern in video gaming. They are:
- Skin betting
- Loot boxes
- Social casino gaming
- Gambling content in video games that children may play
Four areas of concern already drawing heat in the US
This declaration is more significant for its breadth of signatories than its content. The three explicit areas of concern defined in its text have already been the subject of critique both abroad and in the US.
The fourth, ” the use of gambling-themed content within video games available to children,” is a rather vague and general concern. It serves as a catchall for any other objectionable material not covered by the first three.
Skin betting is the practice of trading money or virtual goods in exchange for a chance at a more powerful or desirable item. The ability to make these kinds of trades first appeared on a multiplayer video game called Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, although it has spread to other games.
In this particular game, the game developer, Valve, released virtual liveries for players’ weapons called “skins.” As these items began dispersing about the game world, they gained real-world value based upon their rarity and desirability.
Valve followed this release with “weapon cases,” which contained a random skin and could only be opened with a real-money purchase. Because skins now held real-money value, it became possible to either win or lose money based upon what skin appeared in the player’s case.
Needless to say, the semblance of this practice to gambling drew the attention of legislators. In fact, lawmakers from Washington State have consistently pressured Valve to address the issue. Although the developer has cracked down on the activity, it still occurs in a somewhat black market.
Loot boxes have become the figurehead for the type of in-game activity these regulators want to discuss. These objects are receptacles that dispense random in-game items to players in exchange for real money.
As an ancillary feature to the essential gameplay, loot boxes are a minor annoyance to players who already spent $60 on the game. However, in some games, the use of loot boxes is critical to maintaining course through basic late-stage gameplay.
Since the dispensed items are random, it is entirely likely that the player will not receive his or her money’s worth. Therein lies the problem for many regulators.
In fact, both the Netherlands and Belgium have already banned loot boxes.
Social casino gaming
This one needs no particular explanation. Social casinos like Big Fish Casino and Double Down are common features on Facebook and other mobile platforms.
Gambling content in video games for children
Obviously, gaming content in child-friendly video games is a cause for concern for this group. However, casino video games have been around as long as video games. There were bona fide casino games on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and that was more than 30 years ago.
Washington State nothing if not consistent about online gambling
The fact that no other states joined on this declaration is a bit surprising. However, if one state were to join, it would almost always have been Washington. The Evergreen State stands alone in its stringency against online gambling.
Unlike virtually any other state in the union, Washington prescribes criminal penalties for online wagers. In fact, betting in an online game is a Class C felony – the same class of crime as assaulting a child.
So, Washington’s presence on this declaration is not a surprise. If anything, it’s comforting that a government can maintain a consistent position on a particular issue.