Almost a year to the day after the UK Government's loot box inquiry asked the country's games industry to deal with people's concerns about kids buying loot boxes, the UK games industry trade association UKIE has agreed on a plan to do it. It's issued a set of 11 "Industry Principles" that it swears will "improve protections for all players" and make the whole loot box buying process more transparent and less accessible to kids.
Although they were unveiled with the participation of UK Minister for Creative Industries John Whittingdale, UKIE's 11 principles are a private sector initiative: An attempt to corral the nation's games companies into following a set of best practices that should obviate the need for the state to step in and start banning things (if indeed that was ever a risk: The current government expressed its reluctance to interfere with the games industry in such a way last year).
You can find all 11 of the new principles below, but they take some cues from how Asian governments such as Japan and South Korea have addressed the issue, particularly the focus on transparent odds, with the headline items pertaining to kids' access to loot boxes and surfacing info about probabilities. Number one on UKIE's list of loot box commandments is the provision of "technological controls to effectively restrict anyone under the age of 18 from acquiring a Loot Box, without the consent or knowledge of a parent, carer or guardian."
Awareness of those controls, meanwhile, will be spread to "players, parents, carers and guardians through regular communications" that kick off with a public awareness campaign this month. The principles also mandate that games make it clear when they contain loot boxes prior to purchase, so that players and parents can avoid them if necessary.
If players do buy those games, the loot boxes should be designed "in a manner that is easily understandable" and make their probabilities very clear indeed, so you know up-front just what a vanishingly infinitesimal chance you have of picking up one of those guns that sells for six figures on trading sites. Anyway, here are those principles in full (you can find more info on UKIE's website):
- Make available technological controls to effectively restrict anyone under the age of 18 from acquiring a Loot Box
- Drive awareness of and uptake of technological controls with all players
- Form an expert panel on age assurance in the games industry
- Disclose the presence of Loot Boxes prior to purchase
- Give clear probability disclosures
- Design and present Loot Boxes in a manner that is easily understandable
- Support the implementation of the Video Games Research Framework
- Continue to tackle the unauthorised external sale of items acquired from Loot Boxes for real money
- Commit to lenient refund policies on directly purchased Loot Boxes or purchased in-game currency used to acquire Loot Boxes
- Advance protections for all players
- Work with UK Government and other relevant stakeholders to measure the effectiveness of these principles
The principles' effectiveness and progress will be reviewed in another 12 months.
It's difficult not to be sceptical of self-regulation schemes like this one. When the UK Government decided against intervening against loot boxes last year, one expert decried the move, declaring that the "foxes are guarding the hen house". It's hard to believe that a set of 'self-regulating' guidelines, no matter how well-intentioned, will stop certain companies from just doing whatever makes them the most money at any given time. But perhaps I'm wrong. We'll find out more as the industry digests these guidelines and decides whether to adopt them—or take their chances with a government that doesn't seem terribly interested in regulation.