Every day, around the world, millions of users fight against temptation. Your favorite video game invites you to buy a more powerful rifle for your alter ego, or a soccer legend who revolutionizes his team. So they pay, and they cross their fingers, because what they get is a closed box. They may get what they were looking for. Or, more likely, not. The Ministry of Consumer Affairs defines this phenomenon, which is increasingly common in the sector, as Random Reward Mechanisms (MAR). “They have characteristics very similar to traditional games of chance” and can lead to “thoughtless, compulsive or even pathological” consumption behaviors, especially for the youngest, Minister Alberto Garzón said a month ago. That is why the bill to regulate calls loot boxes that the Government makes public this Friday prohibits minors from accessing them, as confirmed by EL PAÍS.
Dozens of games as famous as Fifa, eFootball, NBA 2K, Overwatch either Heartstone, and mostly classified as recommended for ages 12+, they use it. And millions of users spend their money there. When the purchase is confirmed, a light and sound show is displayed on the screen. Most titles let a few seconds of suspense elapse before the denouement. Although, almost always, you get a disappointment. Some will accept it, others will be frustrated, but some may take out their wallets again for a new attempt. And other. And other.
The Government’s strategy, in the absence of materializing, shuffles options such as mandatory registration with DNI or biometrics for minors. And it is not going to prevent them from using the video game itself: simply, from the loot boxes that contains. The distinction is very important for the ministry: it is not intended at all to equate video games with games of chance. In other words, Consumption has nothing against the vast majority of titles in a sector whose cultural and artistic value is increasingly recognized and whose turnover has come to exceed that of cinema and music together on a global level. The focus of the draft is placed on the MAR where the prizes are interchangeable: basically, when the activation of the reward mechanisms costs money or other virtual objects acquired with money directly or indirectly. Hence, the regulation does not only affect the boxes within a video game, but also websites or external exchange platforms.
In addition, the ministry wants to implement some mechanism to limit the spending of those over 18 years of age: it is proposed that they can establish a maximum time and amount for a gaming session, or even a self-exclusion system, similar to that of casinos, but it is still necessary to develop the small print The bill also requires operators to offer truthful information about the real chances of obtaining the prize, something that does not happen in many cases today. And the advertising of the physical MAR is prohibited, on-line in digital environments, including social networks, that are not related to video games, and on radio and television, except from 1 to 5 in the morning.
All the culture that goes with you awaits you here.
The text begins this Friday the public hearing process: those interested can make contributions until July 23. Then, it will go to the Council of Ministers —the goal is for it to be approved this year— and, later, it will be processed as a bill in the Cortes. Perhaps the layman of video games will be surprised by a regulation ad hoc. But, in the sector, MARs are one of the most debated and controversial issues. Belgium or Japan, in fact, have already banned them.
Most studies estimate that 40% of the world’s population uses video games, whether on computers, consoles, tablets or mobile phones. The traditional format was to buy a title and enjoy it. Soon the so-called expansions were added, paid content that added a new plot or more challenges to the main game. And, some time ago, microtransactions appeared: several games are offered to the user for free or for a very low amount of money -although sometimes it also happens with works of 60 or 70 euros-, but they include the option to buy more content inside the title.
It works so well that the category “on-line and microtransactions” was the second source of income for video games in Spain after apps, according to the 2021 SGAE Yearbook. The key difference with respect to MARs is that, in this case, the reward is clear: you pay, say for a new costume and you get just that. It happens every day in Fortnite, one of the games on-line most popular among young people on half the planet.
The next evolution, then, were the loot boxes. There are, in addition, cosmetic purchases (clothes, symbols, etc.) and others that affect the development of the game: it is likely that the one who acquires many boxes in fifafor example, accumulate better footballers than your rivals on-line and therefore win more matches. The only option for those who do not want to pay are hours and hours, since by dint of playing, rewards are also obtained, more slowly. The same as accessing every day, even if it’s five seconds, or playing in certain temporary windows, which draws a system designed to encourage the user to return again and again. There is, however, no strong clinical evidence of its link to gambling and the disorders it can cause. The critics, yes, attribute it only to the fact that the investigations have not yet had time to prove it.
Attendees at Milan Video Game Week 2019 play ‘Fifa 20’. Emanuele Cremaschi (Getty Images)
In the debate, in general, there are nuances. So much so that EA Sports, creator of fifawas condemned in the Netherlands for the similarities between the loot boxes and gambling, but acquitted in the second and final instance, as the court did not consider that it was a different game, “isolated” from the main one. On the one hand, it is clear that a free video game democratizes access. On the other, a shopping system runs the risk of generating addiction, especially in minors and if it is random, according to its opponents. And about when the internal currencies, no matter how much they are purchased with euros, are called in other ways, which reduce the perception of spending. There are also those who argue that the loot boxes they do not differ much from the old cards. And who answers that those could be exchanged between friends for free and that they ended when completing the album. The MAR, on the other hand, do not seem to have an end.
Its presence has skyrocketed in the last decade, and more than 58% of the games on Google Play and iPhone contain them, according to a 2020 study by Dr. David Zendle, one of the leading experts on the subject, among other authors. And another recent investigation in which Joaquín González-Cabrera, doctor in Social Psychology and Methodology of Behavioral Sciences at the International University of La Rioja-UNIR, worked, concluded that 30.4% of the 6,603 Spaniards between 11 and 30 years old respondents had bought at least one MAR in the last year (28.9% among minors).
Hence, the phenomenon caught the attention of economists, psychologists and politicians from several countries. Now Spain is preparing to regulate them with the first “specific law in Europe”, as Minister Garzón presumed. Rewards will still depend on chance. But, at least, there will be a few certainties.
Exclusive content for subscribers
read without limits