Last week the Children's Commissioner for England published its report, "Gaming the System", which looks at the experiences of children playing games online in the UK today.
The report aims at bridging the gap between the overwhelming majority of children in the UK playing video games (93%), and the adult policymakers who seek to regulate and safeguard the industry (often without a detailed knowledge of what life is actually like for kids who game online these days).
Crucially, the report highlights a number of the positive influences of online gaming. The Commissioner's research finds that online gaming offers an important means for children to socialise, learn new cognitive skills and above all have fun (which is sort of the point). Most online social interactions children have are with friends they already know outside of the online realm (such as school friends) and gaming provides a chance to develop these relationships further. For most children, online gaming and their social lives are inexorably connected - the two cannot simply be carved apart by regulation.
However, the report also discusses some of the negative aspects experienced by children who game online. These include being teased by friends (e.g. for not being rich enough to afford the latest 'skins' on Fortnite) or experiencing unpleasantness or aggression from strangers. The report also highlights further risks such as being tricked into revealing personal information by scammers or feeling 'addicted' to gaming to the detriment of other offline activities.
And then of course we get to the 'loot box' conundrum - the ability for kids to fritter away real-world money within certain games (often from the Bank of Mum and Dad) on repeated, randomised games of chance in the hope of being awarded the in-game item they desire...or frequently nothing at all. This mechanism (which has become an integral form of revenue for many major games companies) has all the trappings and addictiveness of actual gambling for children, but currently falls outside of the law. Even at the time of writing, I myself regret the funds I put towards buying FIFA Ultimate Team packs this past weekend, only to end up with nothing but a Salomon Rondon card.
The loot box issue was discussed at length by the government this year at the DCMS immersive and addictive technologies inquiry, which recommended that the sale to children of games with in-built 'loot box' mechanisms should be banned entirely and for loot boxes to be regulated under the UK Gambling Act. Echoing these sentiments, the Commissioner's report finds that a lack of guaranteed reward from these in-game 'loot box' purchases can leave some children feeling as though they have wasted their money, or worse, trying to chase losses.
Ultimately, the Children's Commissioner recommends 15 policy recommendations to tackle the perceived harms/risks of gaming online for children. You can read the full report here, but some of the key recommendations include:
- Bringing financial harm within the scope of the Government’s forthcoming online harms legislation (developers and platforms should not enable children to progress within a game by spending money and spending should be limited to items which are not linked to performance).
- Games which allow in-game purchases should include features for players to track their historic spend, and introduce maximum daily spend limits.
- Regulating loot boxes under section 6 of the Gambling Act 2005 as gambling.
- Including provisions on nudge techniques and detrimental use of data in the government’s age appropriate design code.
- Online games should be subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system, just as physical games are (with an additional warning displayed for games which facilitate in-game spending).
- Online games should be a key focus of digital citizenship lessons in schools, rather than lessons focusing exclusively on social media.
Responding to the Commissioner’s report, a government spokesperson said:
“Video games can be enjoyed by children safely as part of a healthy lifestyle and we encourage parents to use built-in controls to set spending and time limits. But we are clear children must always be protected from harm and we will carefully consider the concerns raised in this report in relation to excessive or gambling-like behaviour.”