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EA, Activision Blizzard, and Valve found in breach of Belgian gambling laws

Loot boxes in FIFA 18, Overwatch, and CS:GO violate gambling legislation, says Belgian Gaming Commission

Three of the biggest firms in the industry could face criminal charges after the Belgian Gaming Commission (BGC) found that certain loot boxes violate national laws.

Following a five-month investigation into Star Wars Battlefront II, FIFA 18, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the BGC found that only Battlefront II did not directly contravene Belgian gambling legislation.

BGC director Peter Naessens noted that players of these games are "tempted and misled", and that none of the protective measures for gambling have been applied.

"Now that it is clear that children and vulnerable people in particular are exposed to them unprotected, game manufacturers but also parties such as FIFA, for example, are called upon to call a halt to this practice," he said.

Minister of justice Koen Geens, who commission the investigation following the fallout over the Battlefront II loot box controversy last year, said in a statement today that mixing games and gambling is "dangerous for mental health".

"We have already taken numerous measures to protect both minors and adults against the influence of, among other things, gambling advertising," he added. "That is why we must also ensure that children and adults are not confronted with games of chance when they are looking for fun in a video game. "

Violation of gambling law is a criminal offence and Electronic Arts, Valve, and Activision Blizzard could each face a €800,000 fine if the offending loot boxes are not removed. There is also scope for a five-year prison sentence but, these punishments can be doubled when minors are involved.

However, unlike the recent decision from the Netherlands Gaming Authority, there is no hard deadline on when the game operators must comply with the law.

"We decided to first go have meetings with the sector, then we are going to look into what they have to do. There is no timing on things for the moment," a spokesperson for justice minister Geens told GamesIndustry.biz.

Electronic Arts, whose game FIFA 18 is in violation of the law, said that the BGC has not been in contact or directly shared its report findings. The publisher added that it would "welcome the dialogue with minister Geens" and denied that any of its games could be considered gambling.

"We strongly believe that our games are developed and implemented ethically and lawfully around the world, and take these responsibilities very seriously," a spokesperson told GamesIndustry.biz.

"We care deeply that our players are having a fun and fair experience in all of our games, and take great care to ensure each game is marketed responsibly, including in compliance with regional ratings standards."

As with last week's Netherlands' decision, only certain loot boxes are technically illegal. Belgian law considers four factors when deciding whether something constitutes gambling: there must be a game element, there is some form of betting, that betting can lead to profit or loss, and chance plays a role.

In a conversation with GamesIndustry.biz, Flemish Games Association spokesman David Verbruggen said the trade body did not have an official comment as of yet, but would be looking into the report further.

"We are not against talking about regulation," he said. "If things get out of hand, we have to take care of this because it's in the best interests of our industry.

"We have been trying to reach out to [the BGC] for months. We just got the report and want to review it internally. We are going to talk with them and are happy with the invitation."

The Interactive Software Federation of Europe took a similar stance in a statement issued to GamesIndustry.biz, saying that it would not comment further until seeing the report itself.

"ISFE and our Belgian trade association, BEA, have been active over the past few months requesting a meeting with the Belgian authorities," said the organisation. "As such, we welcome the statement by minister Geens seeking a dialogue with stakeholders".

GamesIndustry.biz has also reached out to the BGC and is awaiting a response.

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Latest comments (8)

Shane Sweeney Academic 7 months ago
The only thing I'm confused by is how everyone seems so tolerant to it on mobile, but not tolerant to it on Console.
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch7 months ago
@Shane Sweeney: I think it's mostly to do with prior expectation. If you have enjoyed games at a set price that include all of the content then these systems that withhold content unless you spend, especially when that content is randomised and not guaranteed, can be unwelcome.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 months ago
There is no increased tolerance towards loot boxes on mobile, it is just that much harder to go after smartphones than it is to go after PC and console. So baby steps, first set a legal precedent with a segment more firmly rooted in the children's toy market, then go after the 800 pound Gorilla that is smartphones.

Smoking was not pushed out of existence in a day and neither will forms of undesired gambling. But the pressure will continue and get increasingly resilient to empty PR responses.
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Well, what if we follow the precedent in china. publish the rates% of chance
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Nick Parker Consultant 7 months ago
There was a time when the platform holders Sony and Microsoft acted as gatekeepers to prevent a sniff of gambling or wagering within games on their respective devices.
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If the test for gambling in Belgium is based on the following : "there must be a game element, there is some form of betting, that betting can lead to profit or loss, and chance plays a role", it begs several questions:
1) How does a player generate a loss from opening a lootbox? Most games use proxy currencies rather than direct purchase for lootboxes so they gained value from the purchase of the currency in the first place then redeemed that currency for a randomised virtual reward. No loss will have been incurred whatever the outcome surely?
2) Stripping out the loss condition, does this not make all games with soft currency lootboxes illegal, even those with no ability for players to directly purchase the soft currency? In fact could not all games with randomised rewards (enemy lot drops, mission completion rewards etc.) be deemed gambling if the definition of betting includes the investment of time and effort?
3) How on earth will they police this when there are hundreds of thousands of mobile games alone that fall within this definition?
Methinks this is just the start of what will be a long legal tussle between the games industry and regulators over what does and does not constitute gambling.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 months ago
How on earth will they police this when there are hundreds of thousands of mobile games alone that fall within this definition?
Just because hundreds of thousands of people are part of the global drug trade, does not make it more legal or lessen the resolve of those who fight it. Meth will never be legalized (again) on the basis of a lot of people being enthusiastic consumers.

Plan B: Platform holder liability laws.
Since Google and Apple created closed platforms, enforcing the law is actually quite easy. Go after the people controlling the platform. Since Google and Apple also operate as payment processing providers and also earn money, it is quite easy for law enforcement to enforce the law.
Most games use proxy currencies
These kind of workarounds won't fly. Look no further than the case of Philip Morris being told they were in violation of the law prohibiting to market to teenagers, during their "maybe" campaign.
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Eddie In Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Boss Fight Entertainment7 months ago
This all depends on how gambling is being defined. If we're using dictionary definitions then any game with a dice roll or chance element is gambling; this isn't helpful at all.

Okay, then are we trying to regulate any dice roll involving money? Even with loot boxes, this goes pretty far. Just to name a few:

1. Direct purchase of a loot box
2. Direct purchase of a currency that can purchase, among many other things, a loot box
3. Direct purchase of a key which provides access to gameplay which rewards users with a loot box at the end (Hearthstone Arena, FUT Draft, Raid Boss Keys in F2P MMOs, some Game Shows)
4. Direct purchase of loot boxes that I share with my friends
etc etc...

To complicate things, I agree with Nick Gibson that a loot box is purchasing a digital asset with variable value. I'm for a future where I have more control over my digital assets. I've invested time, money and effort in acquiring that asset, I should be able to sell it if I want to. (This is another can of worms that the Netherlands gaming commission just flagged other games for). If in-game items were tradeable digital assets, what is the role of government in regulating this?

@Klaus Preisinger - I agree that leaning on platforms will be the easiest path to any regulation. I disagree with government (or platforms) deciding which game systems we can design but I would gladly support any regulation preventing unauthorized transactions of loot boxes by minors.
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