Smith: Selling gambling to children

In terms of quality, 2017 will inevitably rank as one of the greatest years in gaming history.

But as Charles Dickens would likely say, 2017 will also be remembered as the worst of times for the industry. Not from a gameplay perspective, mind you, but from a consumer and moral perspective.

It will forever be known as the year video game publishers tried to push gambling to children. I’ve never been so ashamed and angry at the industry I love.

I’m referring, of course, to randomized in-game loot boxes that can be purchased with real money. You can argue this doesn’t constitute gambling, since the player isn’t receiving any money in return. But the random loot box awards consist of random in-game prizes that may be worth less or more than what you paid, and to me, that sounds like gambling.

Legally, online gambling is a gray area, so these publishers haven’t broken any laws. But Congress can certainly change that. By this time next year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a mention of legislation to protect children from these multi-million dollar predators.

The publishers’ only chance of reprieve is to forget about paid loot boxes entirely and promise never to use them in video games again. Thankfully, these video game fat cats are cowardly enough to do just that. They wouldn’t stand up for a principle they believe in, much less defend the deplorable practice of pitching gambling to children.

“Or would they?”

We (gamers) weren’t supposed to notice this subtle shift of game economies. You can buy the same loot boxes with in-game money, after all, and the rate of micro-transactions in full-priced games has been slowly ramping up the past couple of years. Publishers figured most gamers would look right past the loot boxes, save for those with addictive tendencies and poor impulse control. They count on these super-fans to endlessly throw money at a single game, then ask for more.

If these publishing monoliths weren’t too blind and insular to collude with each other, they likely would have gotten away with it. All they had to do was stagger this year’s game releases into 2018, easing gamers into a new financial reality. But they wanted to shake the money tree at the same time, and the recent surge of loot box laden games has pissed off the people they’re trying to sell them to.

Stories about the unscrupulous practice have been dominating gaming headlines, and there’s a good chance it may hit mainstream media. “Destiny 2” was the first big game to promote loot boxes this year. Then it was “NBA 2K18.” “Middle Earth: Shadow of War” was next. Then “Forza Motorsport 7.” Electronic Arts was the most recent and egregious, twining the gameplay progression of the upcoming “Star Wars: Battlefront II” around real money.

Thanks to a 1,000-signature petition, the British government has already investigated the matter. They determined paying real money for randomized game prizes doesn’t constitute gambling, simply because the digital prizes have no value outside of the game.

I’m sure game publishers don’t want to find out if the U.S. government feels the same way. Even if random loot boxes do prove legal, they don’t want a teary-eyed mom telling Congress how little Johnny spent $900 on a $60 game.

If the publishers are lucky, they might come away relatively unscathed. Video game gambling is small potatoes compared to the current threat of nuclear war and loss of health care, and game publishers could quickly pull out of this mess without inviting more scrutiny.

With scrutiny comes the dreaded inevitability of government intervention. And no one wants that — not even me. Putting any kind of artistic media under a national spotlight invites false claims about media violence, despite the ESRB ratings and violence warning labels the agency slaps on game packaging.

It feels like game publishers are already backing down, though they would never admit it. The character progression system in the recently released “WWE 2K18” is built around loot boxes, but 2K Games was quick to point out you can’t buy them with real money. Ubisoft has been making a big deal about the lack of paid loot boxes in the upcoming “Assassin’s Creed,” taking advantage of the backlash to present themselves as paragons of ethical gaming.

Don’t believe any of them. These last minute changes to the loot box system are so thinly disguised as to be laughable, allowing publishers the leeway to scamper away without even saying “sorry.”

That’s fine by me. I don’t want a disingenuous apology. Just a permanent policy change.

If there is a change, it will be our job to make sure the publishers don’t backpedal and try to pull this on us again next year. The review aggregate website “OpenCritic” is already taking a stand, promising to list all micro-transactions, expansions and loot boxes for every game.

I was hoping the ESRB would threaten to slap loot box games with the rare content rating “Adults Only,” which would render the games unmarketable. Gambling is restricted to adults, but the ESRB stepped aside on this one, saying it’s not their job to define gambling.

Ironically enough, the ESRB ratings board was created in the early 90s to avoid government regulation over fictional violence. Now they have a chance to once again foist government intervention on morally stable grounds, and have instead succumbed to the under-the-table bureaucracy that made the board necessary in the first place.

Whatever. We don’t need them. Millennial consumers have turned social media into a direct line to greedy corporations, and they don’t take any crap.

I’m just sad the video game industry has become so financially perverted we need consumer justice warriors to keep an eye on it.