Star Wars game fires up debate over child gambling

Global Business

Star Wars game fires up debate over child gambling

The new “Star Wars” movie opens at cinemas across the world on Friday December 15.  “The Last Jedi” is almost guaranteed to break box office records.

But the developers of a new computer game based on the film arguably have less reason to celebrate.

They’ve triggered a global debate about gambling addiction that spoiled their launch and threatens revenues.

CGTN’s Owen Fairclough explains.

Video game maker Electronic Arts calls its new “Star Wars” game, Battlefront II, the most expansive yet.

But expensive might better describe the global controversy unleashed by the company over loot boxes that offer game add-ons for up to a $100 – that’s on top of around $60 to buy the game.

The loot box can give you a new character or more powerful weapons. These upgrades expand the game universe and give you an extra edge – especially when playing online against other gamers.

But you won’t know what you’re getting until you’ve paid.

And this random element has opened up a new battle front against critics who think loot boxes are a form of addictive gambling that puts children at risk.

Keith Whyte, Executive Director of the U.S. National Council on Problem Gambling says: “They’re essentially mini-slot machines. You have to play to advance within the game and so it is creating a need.

“Kids can develop a chasing behavior. They can develop a tolerance where the prizes…they win a loot box, they need to win more and more valuable prizes to achieve that same excitement. And then, eventually, it becomes harm, financial, obviously, but also emotional.”

Even so, sales of extra content – that’s what EA calls additional downloads – have exploded in recent years: in 2012 those sales were $433 million; last year they were $1.3 billion – a 199 percent increase.

EA abandoned in-game purchases for Battlefront II following the gambling outcry.

But it’s started a global debate about how microtransactions should be regulated.

China already forces online game makers to display contents of loot boxes and the odds of drawing the items in them.

Belgium and the Netherlands are considering whether microtransactions should be classified as gambling.

Chris Lee, State Representative for Hawaii, is going a step further. He recently declared: “We’re looking at legislation this year which could prohibit access, prohibit the sale of these games to people who are under age, to protect and families, as well as prohibiting different kinds of mechanism with these games.”

That may be difficult. The U.S. Entertainment Software Rating Board doesn’t consider loot boxes gambling.

For now the commercial force remains with games manufacturers.