Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has published a report today which looks at the experiences of children who play games online. With 93% of children in the UK playing video games, Longfield is calling for new rules to tighten up gambling laws and to address the worries children have expressed about how they feel out of control of their spending on online games.
Commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, the research company Revealing Reality spoke to groups of children who play online games like FIFA, Fortnite and Roblox about what they love and what worries them about gaming, both to shine a light on their experiences and to inform policy recommendations.
“You feel like it’s a waste of money… and then you open more”.
The report “Gaming the system” shows how children enjoy playing online and how gaming can help them to build strategic, teamwork and creative skills. Children say online gaming extends normal play into the digital landscape and provides a chance to make new friends.
However, it also reveals the drawbacks, in particular highlighting how many children are spending money on ‘in-game’ purchases because they feel they have to in order to keep up with friends or to advance in the game.
The report reveals how in some cases this spending can be hundreds of pounds, done without any real idea of what the rewards would be, and leaving children feeling like they are gambling - often feeling like they have no control over the amount they play. Some of the most significant spending on in-game purchases, often known as ‘loot boxes’, occur where the player receives a randomised selection of items. Some of the children who play FIFA told the Children’s Commissioner’s Office that they are aware that the odds of receiving good players are very low, but were still gambling anyway and spending money on packs. In some cases, children can lose control of their spending on loot boxes and attempt to chase losses by spending more.
Younger children told us they are playing games for an average of two to three hours a day, whereas older children are playing for three or more hours. One 16-year-old said, “You don’t realise how long you’re actually playing for … sometimes it’s five or six hours.” The close link between online gaming and their social lives also meant some children felt compelled to play, even when it detracted from other activities. Otis, 12, reported feeling “addicted to all the games [he] plays”
FIFA player Tim, 16, told the researchers that buying loot boxes is "like gambling- you could lose your money and not get anyone good, or get someone really good”.
Other FIFA players shared that they spend money despite rarely or never reaping the rewards: “I never get anything out of it [buying packs] but I still do it”, says 14-year-old Lee. Nick, 16, reports that “you feel like it’s a waste of money… and then you open more”.
Pathologising potential effects of gaming
Coming into effect from the start of January 2022, the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases) contains a diagnosis of Gaming Disorder. The diagnosis is characterised
by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour (‘digital gaming’ or ‘video-gaming’), which may be online (i.e., over the internet) or offline, manifested by:
- impaired control over gaming (e.g., onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context);
- increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and
- continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. The behaviour pattern is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.
The pattern of gaming behaviour may be continuous or episodic and recurrent. The gaming behaviour and other features are normally evident over a period of at least 12 months in order for a diagnosis to be assigned, although the required duration may be shortened if all diagnostic requirements are met and symptoms are severe.
To address the concerns raised by children in the report, the Children’s Commissioner makes a number of recommendations, including:
- 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.
- All games which allow players to spend money should include features for players to track their historic spend, and there should be maximum daily spend limits introduced in all games which feature in-game spending and turned on by default for children.
- The Government should take immediate action to amend the definition of gaming in section 6 of the Gambling Act 2005 to regulate loot boxes as gambling.
- The Government’s age appropriate design code must include provisions on nudge techniques and detrimental use of data, as proposed in the draft code.
- Games that are distributed online should be subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system, just as physical games are. There should be a requirement for an additional warning to be displayed for games which facilitate in-game spending. The Government should consult on whether age ratings of all games should be moderated pre-release, just as physical games are.
- Online games should be a key focus of digital citizenship lessons in schools, rather than lessons focusing exclusively on social media. Teachers involved in the delivery of these lessons should be familiar with how key online games that are popular with children work.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, commenting on today’s report, said:
“With 93% of children in the UK playing video games, it is vital that the enjoyment they get comes with tighter rules that protect them from straying into gambling.
“Playing games online can be rewarding and exciting and help children to develop strategic skills and friendships, but they are also open to exploitation by games companies who play on their need to keep up with friends and to advance to further stages of a game by encouraging children to spend on loot boxes.
“Children have told us they worry they are gambling when they buy loot boxes, and it’s clear some children are spending hundreds of pounds chasing their losses. I want the Government to classify loot boxes in games like FIFA as a form of gambling. A maximum daily spend limit for children would also be reassuring for parents and children themselves.”
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Simone Vibert, senior policy analyst at the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, author of ‘Gaming the system’ said:
“For too long policymakers have focused their attention on the social media giants. This research shows that for many children, online gaming is just as important in their lives and poses a distinct set of benefits and risks.
“It is striking to hear children themselves say that what they sometimes participate in looks and feels like gambling and that they don’t always feel able to control the amount of time they spend online playing.
“As the Government continues to develop its online harms proposals, it is vital that the particular nature of online games is addressed and that the duty of care protects all children online, across all the platforms they spend time on.”