With all the controversy that Star Wars Battlefront 2 stirred up, it was only a matter of time before the powers that be took notice. Sure enough, Belgium launched an investigation into games like Battlefront 2 and Overwatch regarding their implementation of loot boxes with the Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Greens, stating that he believes that loot boxes are essentially a new form of gambling that targets children. Soon after, Chris Lee, a representative of the state of Hawaii, gave his two cents on the situation, expressing his beliefs that loot boxes are harmful to children and that Battlefront 2 was basically a Star Wars themed casino for kids (which, as an aside, is a rather misleading way to present the situation to say the least).
Of course, this is not the first time that a government entity poked their nose into the world of gaming. China passed a law several months ago that required game developers to disclose their loot box drop rates, there were ever so many attempts to get violent games completely banned in the past, and Pokemon Go caused quite a ruckus in a number of countries for a myriad of reasons. However, there is little doubt that this new wave of political figures suddenly having an interest in gaming is due to the popularity of the Star Wars brand seeing as how Star Wars Battlefront 2 is definitely not the first game to ever have loot boxes.
If taken at face value, this should be rather welcoming news to everyone. For the last decade or so, games have slowly become more and more predatory, using things like loot boxes and “free” content updates to entice people to spend more and more money on a game to get some new glittering prizes. Star Wars Battlefront 2 took it a step further and made it so that loot boxes (or rather, their contents) have an impact on the gameplay. If left to their own devices, it seems quite possible that game publishers and developers would create even more distasteful microtransaction schemes to milk all the money that they can get out of consumers. As such, companies have proven that they cannot be trusted to show some restraint, and it is becoming more and more evident that outside intervention may be necessary.
Now that politicians are stepping in, one can only guess as to what will happen next. On the one hand, this could just be some political grandstanding and nothing will come of it. On the other hand, it is within the realm of possibility that gambling laws will be expanded to cover microtransactions, thus giving politicians the chance to regulate games. Such a move could lead to the extinction of microtransactions, or at the very least, loot boxes, which isn’t really a bad thing as far as most people are concerned. After all, anything to protect kids from the evils of EA and Star Wars Battlefront 2, right?
Anyone who knows their history should be concerned by this turn of events though. If games were to be regulated by governments on the basis of protecting children from gambling, then this effectively gives politicians the power to axe any game on demand. Keep in mind that some gamers still don’t understand how things like microtransactions and loot boxes work—let’s not mention how easy it is to spread misinformation and the dangers of mob mentality—and we’re expecting career politicians, some of whom have never touched a game, to understand the difference between pay to win Star Wars Battlefront 2 loot boxes and cosmetic Overwatch loot boxes and then make an informed decision on which to ban. There would be advisers on the subject to be sure, but you would still be giving power to a handful of individuals who may or may not have hidden agendas.
Then there’s the possibility of corruption, whereby a publisher could pay off politicians to look the other way on their totally-not-loot-box-but-is-actually-a-loot-box mechanic. And what of games like GTA V, which doesn’t have loot boxes at all but is just as scummy with its Shark Cards, or Hearthstone, which technically doesn’t have loot boxes but you are still encouraged to buy card packs to have a chance of competing? How would one even come up with a universal legal definition of a microtransaction without it being skirted around by some of the more creative publishers, or perhaps worse yet, catching innocent developers and preventing them from implementing things like Titanfall 2’s skin packs? That’s only the tip of the iceberg as things get messier once you deal with existing games, actual DLC, and expansion packs.
If you still don’t feel unsure about the possibility that governments might be able to regulate games as if they were casinos, then simply substitute games for any other hobby you might have. Would the thought of giving the government similar power over films, books, or web-based content be fine with you? Everyone knows that the government is your friend, and you trust your friends to protect you from the Star Wars Battlefront 2 casino and slay big bad EA and only EA, right?
The Star Wars Battlefront 2 fiasco should’ve been a wakeup call for everyone to keep an eye on their kids and their spending habits, exercise some damn self-restraint when it comes to microtransactions (for once), and actually bring attention to how the intersection of business and gaming is creating all these horrible practices fueled by the exploitation of psychology, but instead, people are cheering for “The Man” to swoop in to the rescue. It could’ve even been an opportunity to give self-regulatory organizations like the ESRB an expanded role and a set of teeth other than branding a game with the dreaded Adults Only rating, yet the most reasonable middle ground between no oversight whatsoever and government oversight may as well not have existed in the midst of everyone’s rush to yell at EA. Regardless of what happens next, one thing is for certain, interesting times are ahead, and we may end up wishing that we did more to protest the spread of microtransactions before it became such a parasitic aspect of gaming.More About This Game