Opinion: This is the game industry's last chance for lootbox self-regulation

Gamasutra contributor Katherine Cross interrogates the notion of regulating gambling-esque "lootbox" mechanics and calls on the game industry to get its house in order -- before higher powers step in.

There’d been a bit of buzz this past week about a strange group calling itself The National Committee for Games Policy (NCGP).

According to their press release, published here on Gamasutra, the Committee formed “in response to the current crisis regarding the expansion of loot crate economies and concerns about unregulated online gambling...Games are not represented or understood in the modern political and judicial world, and that needs to change.”

According to VentureBeat, this shadowy organization whose only publicly known members are those on its Steering Committee constitutes the industry’s “first step toward lootbox regulation -- without the government.”

Well, courtesy of Erik Kain at Forbes who leapt down the rabbit hole of the Committee’s idiosyncrasies, we now know that this organization is either an elaborate fraud or an incredibly amateurish effort by a self described “prolific internet troll” who thought it was a good idea to co-found a lobbying organisation with a 17-year-old. That child, “represents the 18 and under demographic, has lots of great ideas, and is down to work,” according to a statement given to Kain by the group’s founder and aforementioned prolific troll Kenneth Tran.

A blizzard of updates suggests that, at best, this is not an organization ready for prime time, much less ready to be taken seriously.

And yet it raises an interesting question, one that had already been bubbling up around the intense debate on microtransactions that has consumed the last season: Can the industry come together and regulate itself?

"Even if, say, lootboxes aren’t legally gambling, the addictive behaviors they produce are real; the money spent is real."

It should be indisputable at this point that the debate around Battlefront II and its lootbox system generated a backlash visible from space, one which inevitably leaked out into the mainstream press and, therefore, into news outlets that government regulators were likely to read. The Washington Post, the BBC, the CBC and others all pounced on it. Just now, I searched the first mainstream news outlet that leapt to mind, The Sydney Morning Herald, and lo and behold there was an article.

Thus, regulators and politicos have, at last, gotten involved. Belgium’s gambling regulator, the Australian state of Victoria’s gambling commission, and now Hawai’i state legislators are all making angry noises about this issue, signaling what could be the start of a protracted and bitter legal fight for videogame industry.

When I’ve talked to game developers about my own (less than sanguine) feelings on microtransactions and lootbox mechanics, I’m often told that even if I were right about the ethical problems there’s nothing more to be done. Who could possibly hold all gaming companies to account in a credible, meaningful way? Yet, it stuns me that this is even an argument when the entire industry obeys the writ of the ESRB. Or in a world where, say, powerful national medical and legal organizations exist to enforce profession-wide standards.

The absolute cluster that is the NCGP should not discourage anyone who is seriously thinking about getting the industry together to clean house, I’d argue. Furthermore, it’s hardly infeasible to suggest that we could merely expand the remit of the ESRB itself. I’ve written in the past that the gaming industry is stepping on ethical landmines left and right, as technology outpaces even our ability to think through the consequences of new mechanics or environments on users. The unexpected use-cases of new tech like virtual reality also cry out for more thought to be invested in these games before rushing to market.

Now, more than ever, representatives of various interests groups in the industry must come together to hash out and agree upon ethical principles to govern use of new technologies whose social implications we’re only beginning to understand. We can get bogged down in legal questions--important as those are. But even if, down the road, courts or regulators say that lootboxes aren’t technically gambling, ethical questions will persist. Just because something is legal, after all, doesn’t make it right. Even if, say, lootboxes aren’t legally gambling, the addictive behaviors they produce are real; the money spent is real.

Indeed, the very first step here would have to be refusing to hide behind the “it’s not real!” excuse that video gaming so often uses to mask its failings.

An ethical review board, whether folded into the ESRB or the IGDA, or existing as an independent body, is something the industry sorely needs right now to create common standards that will hold everyone to the mark.

"The video game industry can regulate itself--I just despair over whether the will exists at its highest levels to actually do so."

One might argue that the legal and medical professions do better with self-regulation because of licensing. The revocation of a license is, indeed, a good way to enforce professional standards. But game development requires no such credential, nor does running the businesses that oversee gamedev. And yet, despite this, the ESRB manages to be effective and is respected as an authority by the industry--not just because it’s a creature of the industry, either. That, instead, has served as a bulwark against regulation. It shows that a compromise can be struck.

The alternative is, appropriately enough, a gamble. Clearly, some in the largest corporations governing gaming want to pursue the lootbox question to the bitter end, hoping to come out on top in the ensuing regulatory debates and continue on as they have been with ever rising profit margins. But there’s an enormous risk here: if it doesn’t work out that way, the governments of the world will step in and take charge.

If it transpires that that’s for the best, that that’s what it takes to prevent large corporations from arousing gambling-addiction in minors, then so be it. But I’d rather it didn’t have to come to that. I’d rather the industry got creative about self-government in a way that transcended rank capitalist competition. All studios have a shared interest here, after all.

The video game industry can regulate itself--I just despair over whether the will exists at its highest levels to actually do so.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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