An old problem

I played Magic the Gathering both in physical form and in various digital forms. Anybody who does thinks not much differently of his digital cards than of his physical cards. After all the cards in both forms serve the exactly same purpose, and being able to use the physical card as a doorstop isn’t really relevant enough to value the physical card more than the digital one. However legally I only ever owned the physical cards. Virtual property still has no legal standing in Europe or the USA, so my digital cards are not considered my property. That is a very old problem, and up to now nobody really cared enough about it to consider it worth changing.

But this month comes along EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II with its loot box controversy. And some politicians woke up and realized that such a system is very similar to gambling: You pay real money for a random chance to win something which is of value to you. It is easy to imagine a child being seduced by that and spending hundreds or thousands of daddy’s credit card, because daddy is an idiot regarding his kid and his credit card. Even if research suggests that the real whales are more likely to be lonely bankers with too much money, a politician would rather be seen protecting the children than protecting the bankers. So an attack on loot boxes makes political sense with that child protection story.

However suddenly our old problem is back. Virtual property still doesn’t exist, legally. So the content of a loot box, legally speaking, has no value. So buying loot boxes can’t be gambling, because, legally speaking, you can’t win anything of value. Having ignored the problem of virtual property in the past is now biting the legal system in the ass.

I, being a scientist by education, once had a very interesting conversation with somebody with a legal background about the nature of truth. As a scientist I believe that there is an absolute truth, which I can examine and measure, and then describe with words. If the words don’t fit with reality, the words are wrong. The legal guy thought that writing down words in a law or contract created truth. If the words didn’t fit with reality, reality was wrong. This is one of those cases. It is pretty much obvious to any sane person that loot boxes are a form of gambling (regardless of whether we think gambling is good or bad). You pay money in the hope of winning a prize, and whether you get that prize depends on random chance. Whether you buy a raffle ticket to win a stuffed animal at the carnival or whether you buy a loot box to win a hero character in Battlefront 2 is exactly the same in the mind of the buyer. Only the legal words describing the two situations differ substantially.

While I am in favor of systems that prevent children having access to loot box systems in games, for me that is actually only the start. In order to get to that point we need to legally recognize loot boxes as gambling. And for that we need to legally recognize that virtual property exists and has value. That is a much larger and more important issue than just loot boxes.