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The big interview: the Gambling Commission on loot boxes


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Last week, independent charity Gamble Aware held its annual two-day conference in London. It focused on what’s called Harm Minimisation, in particular, how to protect young people from gambling. The event was a who’s who of the UK gambling industry, but there was one topic on everyone’s lips: loot boxes.

The loot box debate seems to have torn the UK gambling industry apart. While many in the conference room appeared curious to learn more about the issue, others scoffed at the mere mention of “video games”.

Perhaps that’s why Gamble Aware wanted to address the issue head on, holding a series of panels and discussions which debated a variety of gambling related issues within video games – skin-betting, social games, esports and, of course, loot boxes.

Despite the online furore around video game loot boxes, questions remain. What is actually being done about the issue in the UK – if anything at all? After the conference, I caught up with the executive director of the UK Gambling Commission, Tim Miller, to talk about loot boxes and to find out whether we will ever see them regulated.

Where is the Gambling Commission at currently with loot boxes?

Tim Miller: The key in all of this is to recognise it’s parliament rather than us that sets the legal definition of what is or is not gambling. That was set in the Gambling Act by parliament. We obviously apply that definition to our work and we, in effect, patrol the line between what is and is not gambling.

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YouTuber Craig Nepenthez Douglas was ordered to pay fines and costs of 91k for his role in FUT Galaxy.

If a product crosses over that line, starts posing a threat to children and young people, then we are clear we will take action against that. A really good example was the legal action we took earlier this year in relation to the FutGalaxy website, where we prosecuted two YouTube users who were providing a facility for gambling that was parasitic off the FIFA football game.

In relation to loot boxes specifically, the key thing here is the loot boxes we’ve seen, none of them contain a facility to be able to cash-out within the game itself, and that’s really the key thing which is preventing them from crossing that line into becoming gambling.

I’m a parent myself and actually, from a parent’s perspective, it really doesn’t matter whether something meets some legal definition of gambling or not. The concern that parents have, and indeed others would have, is whether there’s a product out there that’s potentially posing a risk to children and young people. We are clear if that risk comes from a product jumping over that line, and becoming gambling, we’ll take action.

You’ve said yourself that the stipulation in law is that loot boxes don’t count as gambling because the items received can’t be “cashed out”. But, as you’ve mentioned, third-party sites do this easily, especially when it comes to FIFA card packs. By trying to deal with these third-party sites, is it not a bit like closing the barn door when the horse has bolted? Is it not easier to nip the problem in the bud and regulate the developers themselves?

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There are many third-party FIFA coin websites, some of which look pretty slick.

Tim Miller: We’re a gambling regulator – we’re the Gambling Commission. The power parliament has given us is to regulate gambling. So if it doesn’t cross the line to become gambling it’s not something we can use our powers for, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a need to take action. If there’s a risk presented to children or young people then clearly it has to be dealt with. So if it’s not gambling, while it may not be us who directly addresses that risk with our powers, it doesn’t mean we can’t raise awareness of those concerns, which is what we did back with both the paper back in 2016 and what we have been doing since.

I think it was striking at the conference, there were a range of voices, all of them sharing the same concerns we share, but the one voice that wasn’t there was the voice of the computer games industry themselves. It’s really important we get to hear that voice. Do they share the concerns that us and others share about the potential risks that could come from some computer games?

Do you think those developers and publishers could actually be trusted to regulate themselves?

Tim Miller: In truth, we are not computer games [experts], to say how well they can be trusted or not. I guess, just thinking of our experience in the gambling industry, we’ve been very clear with the gambling industry that one way to prove you can be trusted is to treat your customers well – to not take advantage of them, to understand their concerns and to act on them.

The same should apply to any product or service, and so if the computer games industry wants to look at some of the ways we’ve been working with the gambling industry to improve the deal consumers get, we are always very happy to share those experiences. But treating your customers well really has got to be at the heart of that.

Have any games developers of publishers been in contact to ask for advice?

Tim Miller: We’ve had some discussions with developers. Often, that’s on the back of us raising a concern about a particular situation. For the FutGalaxy case, clearly we had discussions with developers there and they actually worked well with us on that. We’ve had discussions with other developers, wanting to understand a bit about our approach but the truth is we haven’t had a lot of contact.



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