Last year, video game makers inserted exploitative loot crate mechanisms into several high-profile products, a practice that has been compared to gambling and has outraged many. A new non-profit organization says it wants to take these publishers to task.
Consumers for Digital Fairness is a new DC-based advocacy group that’s been set up by a group of friends who want to highlight game companies’ exploitative tactics. None of the group’s members work in the game industry, although they say they have experience in public policy, political research and advocacy.
In his professional life, CDF’s political engagement director, Christopher Hansford, leads the policy and research department of a government affairs firm based in Washington, DC that was founded in 2014.
“We’re a group of folks who are sick and tired of seeing people and a medium we love exploited by unfair practices,” Hansford told Polygon. “So we decided to put our skills and experience to work to tackle this issue.”
Loot crates come in many forms, but they are generally offered as digital item rewards for certain in-game achievements. They may include weapons, skill upgrades or in-game cosmetics. Players can also buy loot crates (or keys to open them) with both in-game and real world currency.
Loot drops have been used to monetize free-to-play games, most especially on mobile. In 2017, full-priced games began to feature similar systems.
Game companies insist these offerings are merely optional extras, aimed especially at players who don’t want to play for long periods in order to achieve desired goodies. But critics say they exploit people vulnerable to compulsion loops. Gambling commissions in several nations have taken notice.
Hansford said that he and the other members of the group all moved in the same professional circles, eventually becoming friends through a mutual love of games.
“None of us work for or in the video games industry, but we all have experiences with similar sectors. We are united by our shared recreational interest in games and want to restore fairness to the digital marketplace,” he said.
The issue of loot crates came to a head late last year with the release of Star Wars Battlefront 2. Publisher Electronic Arts pulled back on an egregious loot crate-based game design following an outcry from consumers, and a rumored intervention from Star Wars’ property owner, Disney.
EA’s stock price took a battering in the following days, indicating the value shareholders place in loot crate revenue. EA franchises like FIFA and Madden have profited enormously from in-game digital purchases of packs offering random drops of in-game items and sports stars, though this is contained within a single mode of those games. Now EA has made a priority of moving this mechanism to action games, where loot crates are part of all modes.
This week, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, the most popular game on Steam, started offering loot crates. Players can make real-world money by lucking their way into rare items. Other big games like Overwatch and Call of Duty: WWII also use loot crates, though they are generally considered to be relatively unobtrusive.
Valve Corp., the owner of Steam, has been the subject of intense criticism for its heavy use of loot crates and “skins” in games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which led to gambling issues among children. Following a public outcry Valve set its lawyers on skin gambling sites.
CDF’s stated goals include pushing for a new classification of games of chance that require real-money inputs. “We aren’t against gambling,” said Hansford. “The existing and well-regulated gaming sector — casinos, lotteries, and the like — are well monitored, clearly labeled, and for consenting adults only.
“What is occurring in the video game industry is the copying of these well-regulated games of chance and the placement of them in unregulated products which are marketed towards children and consumers who aren’t looking for a casino experience.”
He plans to “execute a national education and advocacy campaign” targeting state and federal leaders. CDF is currently seeking donations and has set up a Patreon account. Its donations page pledges that “every dollar” will be “put to work through organization building, grassroots organizing, and direct engagement with a bi-partisan group of civil leaders.”
“We have already seen state leaders in a few places engage on this issue by themselves so it is clear the energy and interest in consumer protections around this issue exist,” Hansford said. “We believe a direct education effort coupled with a grassroots campaign can raise this issue’s profile for policy makers.”
For publishers’ part, their lobbyist — the Entertainment Software Association — denies that loot crates constitute gambling. In November, as two Hawaii state lawmakers announced they were investigating loot crate practices and considering legislation regulating them, the ESA released a statement calling loot crates “a voluntary feature. ... They are not gambling.”
Hansford still believes this is a political issue that can cut through partisan deadlock. “When there is a clear issue of the consumer being taken advantage of, honest leaders want to get involved and do what is right. We think the bad actors in the video game industry have already written the story we want to tell. It’s clearly one of abuse, manipulation, and the expansion of greed though lack of oversight.”
He added: “Everyone at CDF loves video games and plays them as part of our personal interests. We want to help carve out the bad apples and make sure those few aren’t allowed to exploit the consumer any more.”
You can learn more at the Consumers for Digital Fairness website.