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Children's Commissioner calls for ban on all non-cosmetic in-game purchases

UK body also urges government to regulate loot boxes as gambling

A new report from the UK Children's Commissioner has called for the games industry to stop charging players for any additional content that is not cosmetic.

The 37-page document, entitled 'Gaming The System' ends with fifteen recommendations for new government policies -- seven of which centre around the potential "financial harm" games can cause.

Among the top recommendations is the following: "Developers and platforms should not enable children to progress within a game by spending money. Spending should be limited to items which are not linked to performance -- e.g. aesthetic items such as new outfits."

Much of the report's discussions of in-game purchases inevitably centres around loot boxes, but this broader recommendation would encompass everything from more powerful weapons to XP boosters.

In an accompanying article, in which the organisation spoke to 29 children aged 10 to 16, young players said they "feel as though there is an expectation and pressure" to keep up with new games, using FIFA as an example. As such, they feel compelled to buy new players in FIFA Ultimate Team (for example) to speed up their progression.

The Children's Commissioner's Office also called for the UK 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."

This echoes recommendations from the DCMS Committee, which urged the government to regulate loot boxes and class them as gambling last month.

The CCO further proposes that the government review the current definition of gambling "to ensure that it accurately reflects new forms of gambling, including those forms found in online games." It cited the changes to gambling laws in Belgium and the Netherlands as an example.

The body argues that the current definition -- where gambling is limited to games of chance for money or money's worth -- ignores the fact that some items won through loot boxes can be cashed out on illegal third-party marketplaces.

"Furthermore, the argument fails to recognise the value placed by children on winning certain items, even when those items cannot be cashed out for money -- simply winning the game, is enough to persuade some children to spend enormous sums."

The CCO stated the current legal definition is an "obstacle to progress in this space."

Other recommendations included maximum daily spend limits in games (turned on by default for children), and better features that allow players to track their historic spend.

Parents were also urged to talk to their children about the ways the games monetise their audience and discuss alternatives, "such as new subscription-based services which have recently come to the market."

The CCO's recommendations also covered concerns around the World Health Organisation's classification of gaming disorder and around how much time some children spend playing games.

Games companies and platforms were called to share aggregated and anonymised data about their players with independent researchers -- "including average length of time spent on particular games" -- to help facilitate the further study this area needs.

Again, parents were urged to talk to their children about the importance of balancing their time on and offline, and being mindful how much they spend on the former, including playing video games.

There was also discussion of the Information Commissioner's Office's forthcoming age appropriate design code, with the CCO urging the office to "pay particular attention" to games companies and distribution platforms when monitoring compliance. It was stressed that the final version of the code must include provisions on "nudge techniques and detrimental use of data."

Finally, there were calls for games distributed online to be "subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system," in the same way physical games already are, with additional warnings on titles that allow in-game spending.

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Latest comments (6)

Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch27 days ago
The idea that monetisation should be limited non-progression items is absurd because the idea of progress is so vague. Why is collecting all of the cosmetics not considered progress? It's certainly a measure of progress for many players because collection is an engaging activity. Does this also mean that people can't buy DLC or anything that extends a story for example? How would this not be paying to 'progress'

While I understand what the authors of the report are asking for it's the result of a myopic look into the games industry. Such behaviour is common for government bodies but it doesn't make it any less harmful.
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ElvisHasLeft Gaming since '82 27 days ago
Thanks for sharing this; will read the report for sure.
Great news! - we're getting there.
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ElvisHasLeft Gaming since '82 27 days ago
@Ian Griffiths: I believe the problem is not with DLC cost - if the DLC adds to the game with new storyline, new NPC's, new maps, etc. (think of Blood & Wine). The problem is with the u-transactions, surprise mechanics and time-savers that have direct impact on gaming performance. As an extreme example consider paying for special armor-exploding ammo with real-ca$h to get an edge while playing a FPS.

One can argue that even cosmetics can have a bad impact on a child, because she/he will be bullied for not having the Cape-of-Dark-Awesomeness-of-Zoltor ...

Still the report is a step in a good direction; better that the wild-west we play in, where the monetizing mechanics is decided by the conscience / ethics / morals of game developers.
(some) regulation is needed.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by ElvisHasLeft on 22nd October 2019 1:12pm

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Show all comments (6)
Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch27 days ago
Dolly Parton wrote a song about living in poverty and loving a coat her mother made for her despite being mocked for it. In the UK one school recently banned expensive coats to avoid 'poverty-shaming'
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-46221556

The thing that's going on here is that people are looking at symptoms, not causes. Children bully each other, always have and always will it's part of social development and actually continues through adulthood and all of life. Focusing on things like 'kids will bully over not having [item]' is a red herring.

The issue of children spending money in games is a symptom of parents not parenting them properly; giving them unlimited access to games and not using spending controls that are offered on the platforms and easy to use.

We don't operate in a wild-west, we have platform level age and spending controls and games are subject to all of the consumer spending laws as every other area. What we're basically being asked to do here is step in for poor parenting by surveilling players and telling them when they've had enough according to whatever arbitrary standard the government wants.
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Dariusz G. Jagielski Game Developer 27 days ago
A world without pay2win? Count me in. You can earn quite much with just cosmetics or even ads alone (example of the latter would be Flappy Bird). You obviously won't get as much money as with p2w, but it'll be still a steady stream and you have PR bonus of being morally right as you don't prey on players and exclude (partially or completely) players with less or no disposable income (they wouldn't play f2p titles if they could afford real games).
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Eddie In Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Boss Fight Entertainment27 days ago
I feel like a broken record...

Tell me which users are children and I'll go as far as blocking microtransactions or at least digital payment options for those accounts. How do we identify/verify children on the internet though? Which institution is both well-equipped to do this and trusted by the general public?

In theory, credit cards are perfect in that cardholders are all adults and spending limits are checked against some form of income/credit verification. Would anyone bat an eye if a kid spent $5 lifetime on a game they played for hundreds of hours? No, even if the $5 purchase was for a loot box or a non-cosmetic. The problem kicks in when kids have unrestricted access to an adult's payment method. So the conversation should focus on more education / messaging around payment on a given gaming platform.
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