When the game turns to gambling: why children must be protected from FIFA 21’s loot box culture
By Giles Milton
This October, just as they have over the past two decades, game developers EA Sports released the latest version of their football simulator game. Indeed, the newly-released FIFA 21 is guaranteed to top gaming charts and feature in many Christmas stockings.
With World Cup-winning French striker Kylian Mbappe as its cover star, the game looks and feels very much a family-friendly mainstream gaming product.
But despite being a perennial favourite with children and young people, a major cloud remains over FIFA 21’s in-game purchasing functions and the concern that they may encourage gambling-like behaviour.
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A billion-pound industry
FIFA is a major money spinner for EA Sports, with annual turnover an estimated £1 billion. Retailing at £55 for consoles such as the Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation and Nintendo Switch, FIFA 21 is not cheap – but it is not where the game stops taking money from its customers’ pockets.
Its most popular online mode is FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT), in which gamers build a team to compete in online tournaments.
In many ways, success in FUT operates much like football in real life. You buy and sell footballers to improve your team in competition against others. But unlike real life, you can also improve by getting ‘packs’, which contain rare footballers or other features.
Packs are earned by accumulating ‘coins’ through game progression. A quicker route to success, though, is to spend real money in the FUT Store to buy ‘points’ – which can also be used to purchase these packs.
And, just as in real football, money talks in FIFA. Those that spend the most generally tend to win the most. It is not surprising, then, that the game has earned a “pay-to-win reputation”.
Of course, you are not obliged to spend real money in FIFA 21, but when children are competing and wanting quick results, the temptation will always be to buy their way to success.
Gambling on success
The greater problems emerge when you start to analyse the nature of packs, how they generate so much money – and why they may be a big problem for children. Because despite spending money on a pack, you have no guarantee of what you will get.
Packs are valued in tiers, based on the likelihood you will find a rarer item. These have a cost ranging from 33p to £16. So you might purchase 1050 points in the FUT Store, costing £7.99, to buy a ‘Rare Player Pack’. But only once the transaction is complete do you see what is in your pack. It may be the rare footballer you want – but it could equally be ones you already have, or don’t want.
In fact, research by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport found that the chance of securing the rarest of footballers in a pack is less than one per cent.
This risky and speculative way of spending money to advance is found in many online games. They are known as loot boxes or, sometimes, blind boxes. But if you don’t know what is in a loot box, it is a gamble.
On the FIFA Ultimate Team Store page, EA Sports offer a catagorised list of pack probabilities – which indicate the likelihood of finding a rare card when you purchase. You could almost draw a parallel with betting odds at a bookies, but it does provide a user with an indication of the chance they are taking in purchasing a pack.
One teen has spoken about regularly spending “almost £800 to £1,000 a year” on the game – but this expenditure is not even a long-term investment. When each new version of FIFA launches, just as FIFA 21 did on 6 October, none of the footballers you have collected or purchased during the previous year are transferred over. Each year, effectively, you must start from scratch.
‘FIFA is evil’ argument is not black and white
Despite criticism of this business model, EA Sports maintains that their packs are “quite ethical and quite fun”. They offer certain settings and protections against child misuse – including a child account for under-13s that blocks in-game spending. These still need to be used correctly to be effective.
Gaming journalist Ben Wilson, a devotee of the game, advocates a tighter regulation of who can spend-in game.
“I’ve long been a fan of FIFA having an age gate,” Wilson told Parent Zone. “I have kids aged seven and four who have no idea how the actual game works, but love to sit and open packs with me. Naturally, football-obsessed teens are also going to be obsessed with the idea of short-cutting their way to the most exciting packs and cards.
“An 18+ age gate for buying FIFA coins would at least discourage it, though there’d still need to be a degree of in-home policing.”
Still, the argument that EA Sports is acting unethically is not quite shared by all. There are ways to access all the game’s features, even if it requires a level of strategic sophistication not found in most younger children.
“One of the most frustrating elements of the black-and-white ‘FIFA is evil’ argument is that it’s actually fairly straightforward to make significant in-game coins without ever spending real money,” Wilson explained.
“Each year I write a guide on how to gradually build towards getting the best players and I always have an elite team within a few weeks of release. Doing that is often more fun and immersive than playing the game itself.”
Manipulated into spending more money
Parent Zone’s research into this exploitive model of gaming has kick-started pressure from regulators to classify loot boxes as a form of gambling. Our Rip-Off Games report found that almost half of children think some games are only fun when you spend money. This is perhaps a reflection of the fact that many of the most popular games that feature loot boxes (for example, Fortnite and Roblox) are targeted at children.
Parent Zone welcomed this decision, not only because we recommended an independent inquiry in our Rip-Off Games report last year, but also because it’s likely to place further responsibility on game developers to protect their younger customers.
Clear age ratings should take account of the existence of loot boxes, regardless of their legal status under gambling legislation. The similarities between loot boxes and gambling can have a direct impact on children who are not resilient enough to spot when they’re being manipulated into spending more money. Ideally, in-game currency should only be won through game advancement, not real-life money. Even if developers fail to place new 18+ age limits on their games – or at least the spending elements – there needs to be clear guidance when a game contains a high level of microtransactions.
Progress is being made – and at both point of sale and on its box, FIFA 21 advertises 'optional in-game purchases of virtual currency that can be used to acquire a random selection of virtual in-game items'. But emphasis must also be placed on how loot boxes are advertised to younger players. They are often displayed as thrilling and desirable – and children are unlikely to think twice when they’re gripped by the idea of adding Lionel Messi to their Ultimate Team.
Until further change happens, gaming developers will not be playing fair.
Images: EA Sports