UK Parliament to debate gambling in video games which target children…?

Since 2011, anyone who is a British citizen and UK resident has been able to create an online petition.  If this reaches 10,000 signatures it obtains a response from the UK government.  And if it reaches 100,000 signatures then the petition will be, ‘considered for a debate in Parliament’.

Earlier this month, a petition was created calling on the UK government to:

‘Adapt gambling laws to include gambling in video games which targets children.’

This quickly exceeded the 10,000 signature level and the UK government has now provided its response.  You can find the full petition and response here.

The supporting notes provided with the petition set out two areas of apparent concern:

  • Many games that are targeted at children and ‘vulnerable adults’ use gambling-like mechanics.
  • Some games do involve gambling, principally through the use of ‘loot boxes’. Loot boxes are a mechanic by which a player unlocks a random award.

As one would expect, in its response the UK government underlined its concern to protect children and ‘the vulnerable’ from harm.  However, it points out that this is an area that has been looked at recently by the Gambling Commission, which published a paper on the subject of virtual currencies, eSports and social casino gaming in March 2017. ( You can find that paper here.)  The response also points out that there are already a number of UK regulations in place to protect consumers.

So what are we to make of this petition and should the games industry be concerned?

At one level it would, as some have done, be easy to dismiss this petition. After all, its implication that all loot boxes constitute gambling is clearly wrong.  For this one can look to the Gambling Commission’s recent position paper in which the Gambling Commission expressed the view that loot boxes do not constitute gambling.

However, the position is not quite as simple as it would at first seem.  In particular:

  • Not all loot boxes are the same: For example, some are opened through gameplay and others with virtual currency.  In some cases that virtual currency is (or may) be purchased with real money. Similarly, in some cases the ‘loot’ is just a small in-game item, such as a minor character upgrade that can only be used in the game.  In other cases however, the ‘loot’ can be converted into real money outside the game.  As the Gambling Commission noted in its paper: “Where there are readily accessible opportunities to cash in or exchange those awarded in-game items for money or money’s worth those elements of the game are likely to be considered licensable gambling activities.” 
  • In the UK gaming does not require a stake: This is a point that is often overlooked (which is unsurprising given that it is an anomalous position compared with most other jurisdictions).  The UK Gambling Act 2005 defines “gaming” as playing a game of chance for a prize.  It does not require a player to have paid to participate.
  • The position varies by country: A particular loot box mechanic that does not constitute gambling in one country may well do so in another.  In addition, as the petition itself points out, some countries in Asia have introduced specific rules in relation to loot boxes.
  • What about gambling-like mechanics? To date, the Gambling Commission has focussed on casino style games such as slots, roulette and card based chance games.  However, there are other games that are not casino style at all, but which (at least arguably) use very similar mechanics.

So quite apart from this petition, the industry cannot afford to be complacent.

As for the petition itself, at the time of writing it had attracted [14,942] signatures.  All petitions run for 6 months and this one will remain open until 4 April 2018.  But even if the petition does reach 100,000 signatures before then, there is no guarantee that it will ever be debated in Parliament. After all, a petition following the Brexit vote calling for a second referendum on European Union membership attracted more than 4.1 million signatures but was rejected by the UK Government.