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Should loot boxes be in the game?

Should loot boxes be in the game?

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FIFA 22 came out last week, with some changes to its most controversial feature – loot boxes. Has EA Sports done enough to fend off charges that it’s making huge profits from a form of gambling?


Transcript

Hi, I’m Andrew and this is the Playmaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world of football.

Today, the controversial game mode in FIFA 22, and whether changes they’ve made will keep them on the safe side of the law.

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The new FIFA video game was released last week with the same, annual fanfare.

Promising to be bigger and better than ever, the franchise has now sold over 325 million copies since the first edition came out in 1993.

And, once again, the game’s maker EA Sport will be banking on one element of the game to be as lucrative as ever. 

The Ultimate Team mode was first introduced in 2009. And it’s become one of the most popular parts of the game.

The premise is simple – build and manage your own squad, and use your team to compete against other players from anywhere in the world.

It’s fantasy football for gamers – you can stick Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the same team, have Kevin de Bruyne and N’Golo Kante backing them up, and decide between Alisson or Ederson who you want in goal.

It is a hugely popular game mode. Last year, over 20 million players around the world played Ultimate Team.

The popularity also earns the game maker, EA Sports, a lot of money – to be precise, the total revenue from Ultimate Team in 2021 was $1.6 billion.

And driving that revenue are in-game purchases, or ‘loot boxes’, which have become increasingly controversial in the past few years…

“Holy… I’m lost for words, I got Messi, I’m f***ing lost for words, I got Messi! I got f***ing Messi!”

KSI YouTube

That’s the YouTuber, turned boxer, turned rapper, KSI, back in 2015. He’d just opened a FIFA pack, or loot box, and it contained a special edition Team of the Year Lionel Messi. You can tell from his reaction… he was pretty pleased about it, too.

Of course, it may be purely coincidental that an influencer, who at the time had 7.8m subscribers, managed to get one of the most sought after cards in that year’s game. Some people get all the luck. 

Loot boxes have been defined as “features in video games which may be accessed through gameplay, or purchased with in-game items, virtual currencies, or directly with real-world money”. In FIFA Ultimate Team, you can buy FIFA packs, which unlock a selection of players which, in theory, should improve your squad. 

Crucially, up until this year’s game at least, you don’t know what’s in them before you buy them. 

And their use is controversial. A report carried out by researchers at the universities of Plymouth and Wolverhampton found that loot boxes are quote “structurally and psychologically akin to gambling”.

“What we’re seeing is people staking huge amounts of money in video games on loot boxes to try to get, whether it’s like a, specific player in FIFA Ultimate Team or whether it’s a different skins, or whatever it is. So therefore you can conclude that these items in the game, even though you might not be able to sell them again, are of value. And they’re of value because people are willing to stake loads of money to try to get them, and whether that helps them in the game or whether that’s just that they’re intrinsically desirable digital items, really does call for the definition of gambling to be broadened so it is a wager of something of value, rather than money or money’s worth.” 

Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of Clean Up Gambling

That’s Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of Clean Up Gambling, which lobbies for reform to gambling law.

The use of loot boxes in gaming is now under intense scrutiny in this country. The Gambling Commission has said that the 2005 Gambling Act doesn’t cover loot boxes, and a House of Lords Committee report in 2020 on gambling harm called for loot boxes to be brought within the scope of the Act.

In 2018, both Belgium and The Netherlands made the use of loot boxes illegal, and last year the UK government announced that it was calling for evidence into the impact of loot boxes on gambling-like behaviour. And they got 30,000 responses. The call for evidence will also form part of the Government’s wider Review of the Gambling Act.

EA Sports has always maintained that loot boxes are not a form of gambling, and the release of FIFA 22 did contain one new, very important change to Ultimate Team.

Now, players will be able to see one ‘preview pack’ per day – that means gamers can see th e pack before they decide to buy. It will take out the hidden element of buying the pack, which, in theory, should suit everyone.

But does this merely put a plaster over the problem? Are EA just pre-emptively making these changes in case the government review of the Gambling Act recommends that loot boxes should be classed as gambling? Here’s Matt again.

“I think it’s just a standard industry, harmful consumption industry tactic of doing just enough to stave off regulation that might actually be effective. As I understand it a player is only entitled to one preview pack per day, so there’s still no limit to the amount of other loot boxes they can open without knowing what’s inside, so I think it’s a real shame…”

Matt Zarb-Cousin

One preview pack a day may stave off regulation, but the problem could persist – in FIFA 22 you can still buy an unlimited number of loot boxes each day.

EA have rejected the notion that loot boxes are tantamount to gambling. In a statement released earlier this year, they said: “We do not “push” people to spend in our games. Where we provide that choice, we are very careful not to promote spending over earning in the game.”

They go on to say: “We also firmly disagree that FIFA or any of our games involve gambling.  Regulators in multiple countries around the world have stated publicly that where there is no cashout method, loot boxes do not constitute gambling.”

FIFA 22 is set to be as popular as ever – it’s got good reviews, but an increasing number of voices within the community, from players to reviewers, are expressing their frustration with the inclusion of loot boxes.

For years growing up, a generation of FIFA players will remember the iconic EA Sports’ slogan: “It’s in the game” – but if governments around the world take a hard line in the coming years, one thing that may no longer be in the game will be loot boxes.

Today’s episode was written by Andrew Butler, and produced by Studio Klong.