Editor’s take: Loot boxes are one of those topics that pop up every once in a while to make some waves then go away again. Regulators and politicians bash the mechanic and threaten to do something about it, but it never seems to go away. Furthermore, laws that have come about have seemed toothless and have done nothing to solve the problem.
Germany is the latest European nation to consider regulating loot boxes in video games. Spiegel reports the Bundestag (lower Parliament) passed a reformed version of Germany’s 19-year-old Youth Protection Act. Germany’s Bundesrat (Federal Council) still has to pass the legislative reform for it to take effect. The revisions focus on ensuring that children are not subjected to in-game purchasing, particularly “gambling-like mechanisms,” commonly known as loot boxes or pay-to-win (P2W).
The government is not outright banning loot boxes but is proposing strict age restrictions on titles containing the mechanic. The reformed legislation would prohibit stores from selling such games to anyone under the age of 18. It might seem like a trifle since M-rated games do well even though limited to 17 and older.
However, when you consider established franchises like Fifa, which are open to basically anyone, the rule cuts off a large part of the developer’s demographic. In this example, EA would have to either disable or remove loot boxes sold in Germany to keep its age rating. Obviously, EA and others that implement loot boxes will consider the financial tradeoffs and make decisions that ultimately affect their bottom lines the least.
Germany is by no means the first country to take action against loot boxes. In 2017, Australian regulators ruled the game mechanic is gambling and worked with the country’s rating board to change game ratings. The following year Belgium came to a similar conclusion and outright banned loot boxes, telling developers to remove them or face fines up to 800,000 euros and imprisonment. The US has also considered regulations, but it only amounted to lip service.
Of course, any laws against loot boxes or P2W mechanisms are inherently hard to enforce in an era of digital sales. When parents allow their kids to sign up to services like Steam or the PlayStation Network with their credit card, there is virtually no way to know if the person buying those loot boxes is over 18. Only physical sales can truly be restricted, and those are going the way of the dinosaur.