Effectively gambling: The regulatory dog-whistle

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Loot boxes – the digital equivalent of Panini football stickers – are “effectively gambling” according to GambleAware, as the charity looks to widen its net around any form of entertainment that involves an element of chance.

“More than one in ten British children are effectively gambling in popular online games,” GambleAware told The Sun, adding that loot boxes “may be normalising gambling for children.”

One country regulator has agreed, with Belgium’s gambling commission forcing AAA game publishers such as Electronic Arts and Activision-Blizzard to block the sale of loot boxes in their titles.

However, Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson, whose FIFA Ultimate Team game was hit by the ruling, said that the company doesn’t “believe loot boxes are gambling, firstly because players always receive a specified number of items in each pack, and secondly we don’t provide or authorise any way to cash out or sell items or virtual currency for real money.”

And he’s correct, in the view of British law at least, as that is the legal definition of gambling in this country.

However, it’s clear that charity’s like GambleAware want to widen this definition, and to do so it appears that the lobby are using the term “effectively gambling” as a dog-whistle to the regulator that actually means: ‘It’s not gambling, but we think it should be’. Combined with the classic ‘think of the children!’ narrative, and the industry knows the rest.

The soft side of the gaming industry will undoubtedly be concerned by this tactic. The commentary allows the charity to accuse non-gambling products as “normalising gambling for children” without any evidence – an accusation that has already been thrown at the pushers, cranes, and other Cat D machines in the amusements sector (again, without any evidence whatsoever).

In response, the industry will point to GambleAware’s suspect record of judgement, not least in the FOBT debate where the charity was accused by the softer end of the gaming spectrum of cowering away from making a judgement, despite compelling evidence. In the absence of any public outcry about Cat D machines,the charity’s hard line position on the genre is almost untenable.

And untenable in this case is also uncomfortable. For many in the sector, it’s almost as if every organisation in the country acknowledges that social responsibility is at the heart of the amusements industry, except for the charity that stands to benefit from it not being so.

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