The days of simple arcade games in which imaginary flying saucers are shot out of the sky by unseen assassins are long gone; today’s players are expected to compete with unvetted opponents around the world, to whom they talk on headsets. And in the latest development, they are being actively encouraged to indulge in very much non-imaginary gambling.
“Loot boxes” is the child-friendly term given to a feature of online games which use predatory and persistent techniques to persuade players to spend money as they go. Many have linked the practice to problem gambling in later life, and last month the House of Lords Gambling Committee said such methods should in future be considered as games of chance and regulated as such.
Loot boxes are a modern version of Take Your Pick on ITV – virtual treasure chests concealing undisclosed playing tokens that can be used either to enhance status or to get one over on an opponent. Each comes at a price.
The promise of a big reward for little outlay is, of course, tempting, especially to a child. But because the prize is hidden, you don’t know what you’re getting until after you’ve got it, and very few games reveal up front how often the more desirable items are won. The web is awash with stories of players who have frittered away small fortunes trying to get a particular bonus, and usually failing. Only the other week, four children were reported to have spent nearly £550 in three weeks on packs of footballer cards for their Fifa team on the family’s Nintendo Switch console, in the vain hope of finding Lionel Messi among them. Each transaction cost between £12 and £32.
Another family told of their son having spent £3,160 in one game, cleaning out his entire savings.
In the wake of all this, the NHS has set up a new treatment centre to address mental ill-health linked to addiction and called on gaming companies to root out and ban loot boxes from their products.
It seems likely that Britain will eventually follow the example of Belgium in banning all this, but with 55,000 “problem gamblers” in the country aged between 11-16, and the imminent arrival of new consoles from Sony and Microsoft, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
That leaves the elders of the family in charge in charge of policing how these games are used – and there are a number of practical measures that can be put in place.
The first is to take control of the payment mechanism through which online games and their accessories are purchased. There will typically be one account per console, which can be administered from a website. But it’s also possible for card details to be saved on the gaming system itself – and if so it will be disarmingly easy for players to make a purchase with a single click of a button, perhaps by accident. You will need the cooperation of those who use the system to check for the presence of these and other payment systems, including vouchers and prepaid cards.
If the console in question is an Xbox or Playstation, its users can be confined to a child account, which will prevent them from making purchases. This is a far safer way to carry on than sharing the password to a single unrestricted account, through which nothing purchased in haste and regretted at leisure can be refunded.
Many broadband providers also make it possible to limit the hours in which individual consoles are allowed online, and it’s worth checking with yours before getting out the proverbial sledgehammer and simply pulling the plug.
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