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Four publishers must change in-game loot boxes to avoid Dutch gambling laws

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Enlarge/ Is this essentially the same as a kid buying a box of car skins in Rocket League?Getty

Four publishers will be forced to make changes to their games in the Netherlands after a landmark report from the Netherlands Gaming Authority found their loot boxes violate laws against gambling.

Study into loot boxes: A treasure or a burden? (PDF) notes that an in-game loot box violates the country's laws if "the content of these loot boxes is determined by chance and… the prizes to be won can be traded outside of the game: the prizes have a market value."

While the report doesn't identify the now-illegal games directly, a report from Dutch news site NOS names them as FIFA 18, Dota 2, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and Rocket League. Six other studied games that do not allow for items to be traded for a "market value" were found not to violate the law.

Affected publishers have until June 20 to make changes to their loot box design before the law is enforced. Even for loot boxes that don't violate the law, though, the Gaming Authority is asking publishers to "remove the addiction-sensitive elements (almost winning effects, visual effects, ability to keep opening loot boxes quickly one after the other and suchlike) from the games and to implement measures to exclude vulnerable groups or to demonstrate that the loot boxes on offer are harmless."

The potential for addiction?

The Gaming Authority notes in its report that it "has not yet received any signals that demonstrate that problem players and/or addicted players are opening loot boxes on a large scale." Still, it identifies a "moderate to high" addiction risk potential for the ten games it studied, based on a ten-dimension quantitative test previously used for casino games. In a press release, the Authority said loot boxes are "similar to gambling games such as slot machines and roulette in terms of design and mechanisms."

Integrating luck-based loot boxes into skill-based games lowers the threshold for gambling, much like putting slot machines games in a hotel lobby, the report suggests. This ease of access increases loot boxes' addictive potential for "socially vulnerable groups," such as minors, the report says. Despite this, only two of the studied games are rated for adults by the Pan European Game Information system.

"To date, the providers of the games with loot boxes that were studied have not provided suitable control measures to exclude vulnerable groups from loot boxes and/or to prevent addiction," it reads. "This means that, in any event, the minors vulnerable group can open loot boxes without any threshold and/or be tempted into opening loot boxes."

Organizations like the US Entertainment Software Rating Board have argued that loot boxes are not gambling in part because players always receive in-game goods when a loot box is opened. The Gaming Authority bluntly says this argument is "not valid" because the randomized goods have variable market values. "It is beyond doubt that the real winner is the person who wins the major, valuable prize with a high market value."The Netherlands Gaming Authority says it has had "numerous discussions with other European supervisory bodies" about similar regulations throughout the continent. Belgium's Gaming Commission similarly ruled that loot boxes are gambling last November, leading the country's minister of justice to try to ban the practice throughout Europe.

The Dutch decision follows on still-nascent efforts to regulate loot boxes by governments in Hawaii, Washington state, and the US Senate.

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