Children should be banned from buying ‘loot boxes’ in video games, an influential committee of MPs has said.
Loot boxes are packs of in-game items players can buy using real money – with some gamers spending £1000 a year in the hope of obtaining “rare” prizes.
But the contents of each box – which can include costumes and upgrades for the player’s character – is often randomised and not known until after the gamer hands over the cash.
They are increasingly common in shooting games such as Overwatch and Star Wars Battlefront II, and also sports games such as the FIFA and NBA2K series.
And while they have become a lucrative source of revenue for games companies, critics say they can be a gateway to gambling for young people.
In a new report the Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) committee have called for loot boxes to be regulated under gambling laws and banned from sale to children.
Committee chair Damian Collins said: “Their business models are built on this, but it’s time for them to be more responsible in dealing with the harms these technologies can cause for some users.
Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm.
“Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up.
“We challenge the Government to explain why loot boxes should be exempt from the Gambling Act.”
He added: “Gaming contributes to a global industry that generates billions in revenue.
“It is unacceptable that some companies with millions of users and children among them should be so ill-equipped to talk to us about the potential harm of their products.”
Loot boxes are already subject to restrictions or bans in a raft of countries, including China, the Netherlands and Belgium.
The report says the committee “struggled to get clear answers and useful information from companies across the games industry”, describing them as “wilfully obtuse”, but hopes their inquiry will focus minds on the potential harms.
In July Digital Minister Margot James said more research was needed before loot boxes could be linked to gambling.
She told the Committee: “I would contest the assumption that loot boxes are gambling and I don’t think that all the evidence that I’ve read from your committee’s hearings would support that assumption either.
“Loot boxes are a means of people purchasing items, ‘skins’ as they’re called, to enhance their gaming experience, not through an expectation of an additional financial reward and importantly they can’t be traded offline for money, so I think there are big differences and I don’t think really it is true to say that loot boxes are gambling.”
She added: “If research showed them to be a gateway to gambling, then I think that we would be very concerned and we would want to see action being taken.
“I think there is some evidence emerging that loot boxes can be a problem but I don’t think we can yet say they are gambling.”
Fortnite developer Epic Games has already taken action on loot boxes, making them “transparent” so that players can see what is coming before they pay.
And the Gambling Commission has raised concerns over blurred lines between gambling and video games.
It estimates there are 55,000 children and young people aged 11 to 16 with a wider gambling problem, of whom 450,000 are gambling regularly.