“Loot boxes” in video games: where is their regulation in France?

Loot boxes work like loot bags. For example, in Apex Legends, they allow players to randomly receive items for their favorite characters.

In early June, consumer advocacy association UFC-Que Choisir and 19 of its European colleagues warned of the dangers of loot boxes, those unexpected loot boxes in video games that players can buy online. They denounce properties that induce spending “large sums of money, exploiting the vulnerabilities of their young audience”, in particular through “aggressive marketing” and “many cognitive biases”. In their opinion, minors represent a fragile audience who are likely to develop an addiction to the lure of gain and have no idea of ​​the specific amount of money spent on the game.

Released for free on mobile and PC on June 2, Diablo Immortal’s Calendar Chance has been angering gamers ever since. These are the in-game purchases that the game is full of, which increase your chances of getting the best weapons in the game when eliminating opponents. But the investment is not guaranteed because the objects appear randomly. Bellular’s videographer estimated that around $110,000 would need to be spent on the game to optimize the character as much as possible.

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Banned in Belgium and the Netherlands

Players have been complaining about this type of system for years now, which encourages them to spend astronomical amounts with no guarantee of results. In 2020, two French lawyers sued Electronic Arts, the publisher of FIFA. The game offers to buy packs containing random football cards in order to create your own team and thus compete with other players. Lawyers denounce, among other things, “banned lotteries” open to minors and “misleading commercial practices”.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, the sale of loot boxes has been banned since 2018 to protect consumers and in particular the “mental health of children”. But in France the issue made little progress. The former president of the online gaming regulator (Arjel, since replaced by the National Betting Agency, ANJ) Charles Coppolani was very worried in 2017 about risks “very close to those that characterize gambling addiction” but took no action. has been taken since. Because in order to qualify something as a game of chance, you must combine three criteria, recalls ANJ with reference to the Internal Security Code: a financial sacrifice (purchase of a box), a public offer (boxes are freely available) and the expectation of winning. However, this last point is not fulfilled.

“Profits should have historical value, meaning they enrich you,” Frederic Gershon, ANJ’s legal director, explains to World. While you can, for example, use your casino winnings to buy yourself a new car, doing the same is (yet) impossible thanks to outfits and virtual items. The online video game platform Steam allows players to resell their items earned with loot boxes to other users through their internal market, but the money received remains in a closed loop: it cannot be transferred to the user’s bank account, but only allows him to buy other items on the platform , such as video games of your choice.

Should the law be amended to better cover loot boxes? Not necessarily, according to ANJ, that loot boxes don’t fit the very spirit of gambling, which is played with “the idea that you’re going to get rich.” But also because “consumer protection law is already rich in legal instruments or instruments that allow us to respond to the main problems that we are seeing.”

Read also: Video game industry under pressure to make loot boxes more transparent

“Deceptive odds of winning”

Thus, the Consumer Code considers it misleading for a company to present false “essential characteristics of a product or service”, in particular “their properties and the results expected from their use”. And it is to this point that the accusations of the UFC-Que Choisir, which denounce “misleading probabilities of victory,” belong. When China required publishers to display them clearly in 2017, many headlines made it into the queue. But those numbers remain vague, like FIFA, which, for some of the packages on offer, is content to induce a “less than 1%” chance of getting the best win. However, the odds of hitting the jackpot vary greatly depending on whether they are 0.9% or 0.001%.

When questioned by Republican Senator Arnaud Bazin in 2019, the Ministry of Economy and Finance acknowledges that loot boxes “raise the issue of consumer information,” in part because “the price displayed on the initial purchase of the game is very far from the costs that the player will eventually bear.” But according to Bersi, there is no need to additionally legislate, existing texts allowing the Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention (DGCCRF) “to sanction, as appropriate, any shortcomings that may be identified in the market during inspections. Reason why nothing seems to have changed since then, the debate is reopening today with concerns similar to those of 2017.

For their part, publishers are pushing for self-regulation similar to that used by PEGI, the European classification that specifies the minimum age recommended for video games. Thus, in 2020, the words “In-app purchases: includes random content” appeared on the covers. Having a simple informative value, it does not prevent minors from accessing it. Game publishers are flirting with the confines of a vague legal framework, and for good reason: according to research firm Juniper Research, they have earned more than $15 billion in 2020, or about 10% of their turnover, from loot boxes.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers At Roblox, kids are the video game giant’s little hands

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