On Wednesday, representatives from Epic Games and EA met with the United Kingdom Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sports Committee to speak on the topic of immersive and addictive technologies, a roughly 2-hour long session in which committee members questioned the two gaming giants on a range of issues including the ethics of loot boxes, video game addiction, Epic’s allegedly brutal working conditions, and combating player-to-player abuse in games.
The bulk of the session, which is available to view and download on the Parliament website, consisted of committee members grilling the two companies on their practices of selling digital goods to minors and the methods they use to keep players engaged. Loot boxes were obviously a hot button issue here, with the committee frequently equating them to gambling. When the issue of loot boxes being linked with problematic gambling in adolescents was raised, the committee’s Brendan O’Hara MP asked EA if it considered loot boxes to be an ethical feature in their video games, to which Kerry Hopkins, EA’s VP of Legal and Government Affairs, responded,
We look to them as surprise mechanics. But I think it’s important to look at this: if you go to [a store that sells a lot of toys] and you do a search for surprise toys, what you’ll find is that this is something people enjoy: they enjoy surprises. And so it’s something that’s been part of toys for years, whether its Kinder Eggs or Hatchimals or LOL Surprise!. We do think the way that we have implemented these kind of mechanics in [FIFA] is actually quite ethical and quite fun, enjoyable to people. We agree with the UK gambling commission, the Australian gambling commission, and many other gambling commissions that they aren’t gambling and we also disagree that there’s evidence that shows it leads to gambling. Instead we think it’s like many other products that people enjoy in a very healthy way and like the element of surprise.
When pressed about whether the company had any qualms that its loot boxes or surprise mechanics were unethical, Hopkins assured the committee that she had no belief whatsoever that EA’s practices were unethical in that regard.
The committee took a similarly harsh stance on Epic Games, with whom they took issue with the lack of practical limitation on children being able to spend money on Fortnite’s digital goods. Epic repeatedly pointed to the suite of parental controls in their game as an adequate tool for children’s spending to be monitored and restricted, as well as the age-gating of PlayStation and Xbox accounts utilized by Sony and Microsoft respectively. This didn’t seem to be enough for the committee members, several of whom criticized Epic for not being more hands-on with restricting children’s purchasing power.
The committee was likewise dissatisfied at the apparent lack of measures taken by the Fortnite developer to combat the possibility of video game addiction, which the World Health Organization recently recognized as a medical condition. The Digital, Culture, Media, and Sports Committee seemed to be of the opinion that Epic Games should have more limits and checks in place to prevent consumers from spending unhealthy amounts of time with their game. In response Canon Pence, Epic’s General Counsel acknowledged that the game, like anything, can be engaged with at an unhealthy level, but stated,
I think it’s unfair to [ask] a game company which has a very limited relationship with an end user, a pretty clearly defined limited relationship, to ask them to comment on the mental health of the individual player. That ought to be the domain of a medical professional.
Epic Games frequently pointed to the impossibility of knowing what constituted unhealthy behavior for each individual’s situation and emphasized the importance of parents to police their children’s habits, a hands-off approach that seemed to frustrate the UK committee. Committee Chair Damian Collins MP at one point commented, “If I was a parent who was concerned about my child’s use of Fortnite, I think listening to your testimony would not give me any encouragement at all that this was an issue that you cared about.”
The committee also touched on reports of Epic’s allegedly brutal working conditions and on the methods Epic Games and EA employ to combat toxicity and illegal activity in their games. The meeting concluded on a somewhat evasive note, with Epic acknowledging the potential for improvement in their business practices going forward, but declining to commit towards any specific actions. EA, for their part, pointed to their recent campaigns to encourage healthy gaming among players and pledged to continue their current work within the industry.
The United Kingdom is not the first government to begin investigating loot boxes as they relate to gambling. Last September Finland began investigating the popular practice and earlier this year EA was forced to remove FIFA Points from its flagship title in Belgium after a decision by the Belgian Gambling Commission. You can view the meeting in its entirety here.