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Belgium: Star Wars is a gateway drug

Bill Wirtz
December 5, 2017

Children paying for in-game purchases is a sign of inattentive parents not a gambling addiction, writes Bill Wirtz. 

When Star Wars makes the news, it's usually a sign that either a new movie or video game just came out. Despite Star Wars: Battlefront 2 recently being sold around the world, it is the Belgian Gambling Commission that made international headlines on the back of the successful movie and gaming franchise. The commission is looking into the practice of "loot boxes", through which players can ease their progression of the game by purchasing additional credits. In practice, this means that players could achieve better scores in online-multiplayer modes, if they have invested more money into winning bonuses.

The alleged "pay-to-win" strategy has now come under scrutiny of Belgian investigators, as they cast their eye over "loot boxes" in both Star Wars: Battlefront 2 and the very popular multiplayer online-game Overwatch. The producers of these games have denied the accusations of it being gambling altogether; that players could progress normally through the game by playing it, if they are purchasing bonuses or not. Getting into whether this is true would only get into the nitty-gritty of online-gaming. More important are the reactions to the practice so far.

In the United States, legislators are already calling for stricter rules on these video games, and the Union for Consumers in France demands not only declaring the practice gambling, but also demands that the producers need to advertise the games as such.

It seems as if we are going down the rabbit hole of the gateway drug argument all over again. Experts and politicians have been addressing questions of "do video games lead to violence?" for well over a decade now, with the overwhelming consensus that they are not related. The proof is the mere fact that violent video games can still be freely purchased (depending on the country's age restrictions).

If national authorities in Europe were to declare these in-game purchases as gambling, then they would fall under the legislative burden of country's rules on the latter. Yet the implication would even be more far-reaching: if the belief is that gambling in video games leads to gambling addictions in real life, then the future of the gaming industry to drastically change. The implication that 13 year-olds playing Star Wars on their PlayStation will lead to them gambling themselves into bankruptcy in a casino years later, sounds just as absurd as it likely is. It stands to reason that our policy in this issue needs to be much less guided by irrational fear than by evidence-based lawmaking. As of now, there is no evidence for a link between the purchases of so-called "loot crates" and real-life gambling.

The most important actor in this scenario is not the legislator but the parents, as the situation often implicates minors who are playing the games. It should be up to them to decide which games their children are fit to play. We cannot possibly let public policy govern every uncontrollable aspect of children's development, without recognising that reasonable parenting is essential to a child's well-being.

Most importantly though, the actual backlash against Electronic Arts (EA), the producer of the Star Wars game, is that the online gaming community is calling out the unfair practice of creating an advantage for players who pay for their progress. Multiple calls to boycott the game have managed to make an EA statement, in which the developers attempted to explain themselves, the most disliked post on the news aggregation site Reddit, and made the developers reach the decision to significantly change the game prior to its release. Purchasing advantages have been reduced, and there were talks about a temporary suspension of "loot boxes" all together. It turns out that the consumer side of equation is seemingly unhappy with the business-model of game developers, and it will be up to those developers to find innovative ways to communicate and listen to the community.

The interactions between parents and their children or between the gaming community and the game developers are necessary for the evolution of an industry which has become a significant part of the digital economy. It seems hardly defendable that we start the gateway drug argument all over again, and that this time we bring the regulatory machine done on this innovative industry.

Gaming employs thousands, entertains millions and generates billions, and it's for the industry and its consumers to find the necessary balance. Good games sell, bad games don't. It's as simple as that.



Bill Wirtz is a policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center. He has written for Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, City AM, RealClear, The Daily Caller and CapX.
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