On 17 September 2018, 17 gambling regulators issued a declaration in which they raised their concerns related to the blurring lines between gambling and gaming. The declaration identifies four main areas of concern: skin betting, loot boxes, social casino gaming and the use of gambling themed content within video games available to children.
This declaration is no surprise given the numerous discussions that have manifested themselves recently in several countries in relation to these respective areas and more specifically game publisher EA defying Belgium gambling laws by refusing to remove loot boxes from its FIFA series. Loot boxes are in-game virtual treasure chests that can be purchased and contain a random and unknown selection of virtual items. The Belgium Gaming Commission as well as the Dutch Gaming Authority recently concluded that loot boxes might be in conflict with gambling regulations and that certain loot boxes which are currently included in a number of computer games are illegal. Recent media coverage even suggested that the publisher of the popular game FIFA, Electronic Arts, faces criminal proceedings in Belgium as it decided not to remove or amend its loot boxes for Belgium consumers and therefore breaches existing gambling regulation.
Skin betting is the use of cosmetic elements of game characters, "skins", of specific games as "virtual" currency – on third party platforms – as a way of betting on games. It is a relatively new phenomenon and because of its potential harmful nature recently caught the attention of gambling authorities. Social casino games are free-to-play gambling-like casino games such as slots, video poker, keno, bingo and black jack, where people can play with virtual money. Interestingly, a Washington court found a few months ago that such a social casino game constitutes illegal gambling, as a result of which a number of companies withdrew their games from that state and various players have started class actions.
According to the gambling regulators, the disputed games and services have "similar characteristics to those that led our respective legal frameworks and authorities to provide for the regulation of online gambling". The gambling regulators state that they commit themselves to working together thoroughly to analyse these characteristics and that this common action should enable an "informed dialogue with the video games and social gaming industries to ensure the appropriate and efficient implementation of our national laws and regulations".
Although it is mentioned that each gambling regulator reserves its right to use instruments of enforcement available in its own territory to address problems with the mentioned services and platforms, they anticipate that the relevant companies whose platforms and games are referred to in this declaration will proactively engage with gambling authorities to develop possible solutions. It is the hope of the gambling regulator that the declaration raises parental and consumer awareness regarding the transition between gaming for leisure and entertainment and the offering of gambling.
The declaration is signed by gambling regulators or government bodies from Austria, Czech Republic, France, Gibraltar, Ireland, Isle of Man, Jersey, Latvia, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Washington State and the United Kingdom. Interestingly enough, Belgium is not one of the signatories to this declaration, despite its hard stance against loot boxes.
The full declaration is available at: https://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/PDF/International-gaming-and-gambling-declaration-2018.pdf.
The declaration is a logical consequence of the abovementioned recent developments with regard to the use of gambling-related content in video games and social gaming. It is no surprise that no concrete measures are identified. After all, gambling legislation does vary country by country and most countries are still in the situation of assessing to what extent the respective content is prohibited under their legislation. This will often not be easy to determine as most gambling regulations originate well before gambling-related content of this kind in video games and social gaming was introduced. In general, the declaration of the authorities should however be welcomed since it emphasises the importance of addressing gambling related content in video games and social gaming and it will contribute to the dialogue between gambling authorities and game developers on this topic.
See e.g. https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2018-09-10-ea-may-go-to-court-over-loot-boxes-in-belgium