New Star Wars video game mired in gambling controversy

NEW YORK • It is a Star Wars battlefront on Earth that the Disney studio, which will roll out The Last Jedi next month, does not need.

The video game industry had been swept up in a controversy leading to last week's release of Star Wars: Battlefront II, this year's marquee video game linked to the highly anticipated movie.

It started a month ago when games publisher EA showcased that Battlefront II would have a "loot box" system for players.

On top of the US$60 (S$81) to US$80 retail price, the game was going to allow players to spend more money on getting extra benefits.

Each loot box contains a random reward. You could get abilities to do more damage or move faster or you might get a dud, like a "dance" emote for your character.

And if you get that dud, you might spend even more to up the chances of permanently becoming more powerful, such as flying around with 100 per cent invincibility.

It is why critics have called it "glorified gambling". You do not know what you are spending money on, but the more you spend, the higher the chances of winning.

As the website Rock Paper Shotgun explained, you could get those same benefits without spending real money, but you would have to do it by playing matches against other players to earn fake game money, which could take dozens, if not hundreds, of hours.

Loot boxes have become increasingly normal in recent years, included in popular games such as Overwatch and Call Of Duty.

Publishers claim that because development costs of top games rival Hollywood summer blockbusters', selling post-release digital content is needed to make up costs.

But with Star Wars, creating a random loot economy raised flags because some consider the practice akin to gambling and the brand is marketed heavily towards children.

Beyond that, most other competitive games do not offer "pay to win" advantages, which imbalances the game to favour paying players.

Weeks of public outcry culminated in EA taking to social news website Reddit to defend itself on the controversy.

Last Thursday, on the eve of the game's launch, it said it had temporarily removed the in-game purchases.

But EA asserted that the loot box mechanic is not gambling.

Mr Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of Disney's consumer products and interactive media division, had made a call to EA hours before the decision was made to pull in-game purchases.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the call was to express Disney executives' unhappiness at how the outrage "reflected on their marquee property".

For years, critics and gaming psychologists have criticised loot boxes. While the concept may not legally be gambling, they said, the same intermittent nature of rewards and spending is in place.

"If you put it in fundamental terms, it's the same thing," said Mr Kimberly Young, a licensed psychologist and founder of the Centre for Internet Addiction.

"It's called gambling."

Loot boxes were popularised in China and South Korea, where the practice is regulated.

This year, developers in China had to disclose the probabilities of loot boxes in popular games such as Overwatch and Hearthstone.

In 2012, South Korea introduced a law that would require major gaming companies to add features that let parents limit how long their children can play the video games.

"Americans are falling so far behind what other countries are doing and it's all about profit," Mr Young said.

"You have gaming lobbyists who don't want us to talk about this."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'New Star Wars video game mired in gambling controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe