UK's NHS levels harsh criticism at video game loot boxes, calls for bans

Here's another story for the "everybody hates loot boxes" file: Claire Murdoch, the mental health director of the UK's National Health Service, has issued a statement in which she warns that loot boxes in video games are potentially "setting kids up for addiction." Murdoch's statement, in which she also calls for video game companies to ban loot boxes from games that are sold to children, echoes that of some other governments around the world, some of which are taking an increasingly skeptical position on loot boxes in video games.

In a release on the NHS website, the organization announced the creation of a gambling treatment center and 14 gambling clinics across the UK, which are being created via the NHS Long Term Plan to improve mental health and funded with at least £2.3 billion in extra funding across the next five years. The UK Gambling Commission found that 55,000 children across the UK are "classed as having a gambling problem," while 400,000 total people in England are living with a serious gambling problem.

Murdoch's statement doesn't quantify how many of those children are exhibiting a gambling problem because of loot boxes in video games, but she takes a strong stance on them nonetheless. In her statement today, Murdoch made four demands of video game companies. Most significantly, she called on publishers to ban the sale of games with loot boxes to children. She also thinks that game publishers should "introduce fair and realistic spending limits" to stop people from spending a ton of money on in-game purchases.

Further, Murdoch said that video game companies should actually publish the odds for items in loot boxes and make those odds clear before the loot boxes are purchased. Finally, she thinks that companies should help increase awareness about the risks of microtransactions among parents. Have a look at her full statement below:

Frankly no company should be setting kids up for addiction by teaching them to gamble on the content of these loot boxes. No firm should sell to children loot box games with this element of chance, so yes those sales should end.

Young people's health is at stake, and although the NHS is stepping up with these new, innovative services available to families through our Long Term Plan, we cannot do this alone, so other parts of society must do what they can to limit risks and safeguard children's wellbeing.

The UK isn't the first government to take a stronger stance on loot boxes. Here in the US, we've seen elected officials present bills that would ban loot boxes in games aimed at children. Countries like Belgium and The Netherlands have declared loot boxes to be a form of gambling, by extension making them illegal and forcing publishers to drop microtransactions entirely in some cases.

In the UK, we've haven't seen much in the way of regulation because the country's Gambling Commission lacks the power. More specifically, loot boxes sidestep gambling regulations in the country because for some of them, there's no way to monetize the items that players receive.

That line is becoming increasing blurred as users sell their loot-packed accounts through third-party sites and as games publishers continue to test their limits. The release published by the NHS today specifically mentions one game that "even launched a virtual casino which lets players invest real money to gamble on games such as blackjack and poker." While the NHS statement doesn't mention the game by name, it doesn't take a lot of guesswork to figure out what's being referenced here (spoiler: it's Grand Theft Auto V).

Naturally, major publishers have been pushing back on the idea that loot boxes are something that needs to be regulated or outright removed from games. When EA went before the UK Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee last year, Kerry Hopkins, the company's VP of legal and government affairs, argued that loot boxes are "surprise mechanics" akin to a Kinder Egg.

Hopkins went on to say that EA believes the way it has implemented loot boxes and microtransations in its games "is actually quite ethical and quite fun; quite enjoyable to people." Given the player reaction to the loot boxes in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 – which certainly seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back in regards to calls to regulate loot boxes – we're guessing that EA doesn't have a very good handle on what its players actually enjoy.

In any case, it'll be interesting to see what comes of this statement from the NHS and Murdoch's recommendations. We've seen multiple governments make tough statements concerning loot boxes, but outside of Belgium and The Netherlands, we haven't see very much action – maybe all that will change soon.