The children's commissioner for England has published a report that recommends greater regulation of online games, classifying loot boxes as gambling and proposes a daily spending limit for children across all games that feature microtransactions.
For the 'Gaming the system' report, commissioner Anne Longfield's office interviewed children aged 10 to 16, asking them what they liked, disliked and what could be improved about gaming. The report notes many social benefits for kids, but it also highlights bullying and the pressure to spend money on, for instance, Fortnite skins.
The report claims that children were embarrassed if they couldn't afford new skins in Fortnite because, as one 10-year-old player said, "people think you're trash." There's peer pressure from friends, but also from from influencers.
"The amount of money children spend on games varies," reads the report. "In some cases, the amount of money children report spending on games has increased annually, with some spending over £300 in one year. Peer pressure from friends and online strangers, as well as influence from famous gaming YouTubers, are all factors that children say lead to them feeling pressured to spend money on in-game purchases."
The report also uses the example of FIFA as a way that game design encourages kids to spend money. In the sample, which included 29 children in six focus groups, the most popular way to advance in FIFA was by spending money on their squad, and then doing it all over again the next year.
It recommends that children's online lives should be governed by the same rules as their offline lives, where they aren't allowed to gamble. Gambling laws need to be updated to reflect that children can spend money in games, it says, while developers should limit microtransactions to features not linked to performance, like cosmetic items, along with daily spend limits turned on by default for children.
The report also recommends that children are helped in better managing their time so that they don't feel pressured into constantly playing a game. Companies should share data about average playtime and other details to advance research into the effects of playing games excessively, it says, and parents should educate their kids on how to balance their offline and online time.
An age rating system overhaul is also advised, as the commissioner doesn't believe they're taken seriously enough. It recommends that the new age rating system should be legally enforceable, while the government and industry should do more to raise awareness about age ratings and parental controls.
Last month, a UK parliamentary inquiry came to a similar conclusion, recommending that loot boxes should be better regulated, as well as considered gambling. The UKIE put a positive spin on it, while its US counterpart, the ESA, strongly disagreed with the inquiry's findings. It later announced, however, that several publishers had agreed to start sharing loot box odds.