The Flemish Gaming Association (FLEGA) said the games industry is being "dragged through the mud" after the Belgian gambling regulator ruled that loot boxes in any form constitute gambling under national law.
Last year, the Belgian Gaming Commission (BGC) released a report into loot boxes and ruled the mechanic constituted gambling, regardless as to whether it was possible to cash out items for real-world monetary value . It also recommended that companies failing to comply with the law could face fines or even prison sentences.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at Nordic Game 19 last week, FLEGA spokesman David Verbruggen said the current situation is bordering on a witch hunt.
"I just don't think it's fair... The public perception now is that a lot of politicians and people think that every video game is some form of gambling, and that is not really what is happening," he said.
Following the report, there was uncertainty around to what extent the ruling would be implemented. However, just over a year later, we've seen several of the largest publishers in the world either halt the sale of loot boxes, or taking games offline in the region.
"Framing is maybe too harsh a word, but it feels that way; it feels like we're being framed," Verbruggen added. "Then we're asking ourselves, 'Why?' What does the commission want to achieve? Do they want more money for their operations? Do they want to fund the state treasure chest? It's also about taxation. It's about gambling licenses. It's about money. You will have to pay the gambling commission to be able to continue to do paid loot boxes. I'm not talking about a moral dilemma here."
"Framing is maybe too harsh a word, but it feels that way; it feels like we're being framed"David Verbruggen, FLEGA
The BGC, which is a Belgian government cross-party initiative, meets every month to discuss pressing issues around gambling. According to Verbruggen, the civil servants of the BGC leaked the report to the press without consulting the commission's elected representatives. Additionally, he said the BGC didn't consult with stakeholders in the games industry at any point while compiling the report.
"We found it really disturbing that they closed the door in front of us," said Verbruggen. "When the report came out, we talked to the BGC and we said, as an industry we have to be responsible and have to maybe do more to help parents with these issues and protect minors, and we proposed a lot of things. They just said 'no, we're going ahead with prosecution anyway'."
In an email to GamesIndustry.biz, BGC director Peter Naessens did not directly deny the allegation that the report was leaked to the press, saying instead that he had not heard such a complaint, and that members had access to the final report before meeting. He also claimed industry stakeholders were consulted, and that the report was presented to the commission members who "unanimously did support the content and conclusions."
Furthermore, he noted that rather than going ahead with the standard practice of immediate prosecution, minister of justice Koen Geens requested the commission negotiate with companies for the removal of loot boxes first.
"We did those negotiations on the demand of the minister of justice as well," said Naessens. "Normally we should have drafted immediately a police report once we knew it concerned a contravention of the Gaming Act."
Belgian legislation defines gambling as an activity which meets four specific criteria: it has to be a game, it has to involve real-world money, there has to be a loss or a gain, and an element of chance.
Under the current definition, Verbruggen noted that even a school raffle is technically illegal, as are trading card games such as Pokémon. However, there are certain exemptions under Belgian law. It's worth noting that Cartmundi, one of the largest playing card manufacturers in the world, which also makes cards for Pokémon and Hasbro, is a Belgian firm.
According to Verbruggen, the BGC is unfairly targeting the games industry as a whole, rather than the more problematic areas like skin bettering, which -- he notes -- only appears as a single footnote in the 25-page report.
Verbruggen also argued that loot boxes should be a consumer protection issue, rather than coming under gambling law.
"I think that, as an industry, we should be responsible," he continued. "We have to of course look and be careful, and not do unfair consumer practices. But we also have to stand up a bit more for ourselves. We're an industry, we're doing good things too, we're making mistakes just like any other industry. But why do we always have to be the scapegoat."