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Gambling in video games

Every year, usually in September or October, a new version of the video game Fifa is released. This is a football simulation game from Electronic Arts, EA for short. Year after year, the same accusations arise at the same time as the game is released. On the one hand, people complain about the lack of innovations. On the other hand, even the real players depicted in Fifa complain that they do not feel represented by their strength shown in the game. Apart from these accusations, however, Fifa has been criticised for one other thing in particular. The focus is on the so-called Fifa Ultimate Team Mode, FUT for short. FUT is a mixture of a collectible card game and a competitive mode. You collect player cards to improve your own team and then compete with them against other players.

What sounds like a normal mode, however, has a downside. In order to improve your team, you need better, new cards. These cards are most often found in player packs. You can buy these packs with coins earned in the game or you can pay for them with real money. The option of buying packs with real money is much more attractive because it simply takes too long to earn a pack in the normal way. To give an example: A Premium Gold Pack – a standard pack for improving the team – costs 7,500 coins and you get about 500 of them per game. So, you can either play 15 games for such a pack (one game takes between 15 and 20 minutes) or you prefer to pay 1.50 euros right away. The revenues of almost three billion US dollars that EA makes from such so-called microtransactions alone show that gamers tend to use the real-money method.

Of course, each person is free to decide how he or she uses his or her money. However, the possibility of buying a pack is comparable to the famous pig in a poke. Roughly speaking, it is simple gambling. You know that you will draw a gold card from this pack, but you don’t know which one. Since Fifa is a competitive game, you naturally have a clear advantage with a team consisting of Cristiano Ronaldo or Timo Werner. However, the probability of drawing such players, especially Cristiano Ronaldo, is vanishingly small. At this point at the latest, the gambling mechanics in Fifa become critical. It is not known exactly how high the probability is of drawing Cristiano Ronaldo in a pack, but probably getting a royal flush in Texas Hold'em would be roughly comparable. This probability is 0.0032%.

Despite this massively random technique, countless players buy packs day after day hoping to get one of the coveted cards and spend a lot of money on it. Although Germany is reluctant to call this aspect of Fifa gambling, there are countries that want to take action against Electronic Arts for exactly this reason. In the Netherlands, for example, the gambling authority was proven right in a court of law with regard to the gambling theme in Fifa. According to their assessment, this part of Fifa is illegal online gambling. This is justified by the fact that the players drawn from the packs are not known in advance and can subsequently be sold to third parties for coins. Here, reference is made to the internal market, which has some of the same characteristics as a stock exchange. Besides the Netherlands, the only country in the EU that has banned the buying of packs with real money, is Belgium.

Another aspect why this technique should be classified as gambling is the lack of protection for minors. Fifa 21 has no age restriction and thus offers minors hurdle-free access to gambling mechanics. Like the gambling industry, Fifa knows how to integrate addictive means into its game. Opening a pack is always a spectacle and you want to improve your team all the time anyway. If there was no good player in the first pack, there might be in the second, the third or the hundredth. Especially minors are not protected by anyone. Parents would have to do their own extensive research beforehand on a game that has been cleared by an official authority from the age of 0 in order to become aware of this matter.

Now, Fifa may be the most prominent gambling case in the video game industry, but it is far from being the only one. Nowadays, almost every game, but especially games with integrated multiplayer, offers some kind of gambling mechanic. Nonetheless, there are various ways in which the developer incorporates this into the game. For example, there are games like Overwatch, Destiny and countless more that offer so-called Lootboxes in their in-game shops. Lootboxes are boxes that contain a certain number of items. The difference to the packs from Fifa is that these Lootboxes usually only contain cosmetic items, such as outfits or weapon camouflage, and have no influence on the gameplay or the chances of winning.

Nevertheless, these items also have an addictive effect on the end user. This comes about because the developer makes opening a box an event, as was already the case with the packs in Fifa. Thus, the opening is always associated with fireworks, bombastic sound and a sensational presentation. It's fun to open a Lootbox and you feel good about it, especially if the desired item has also been drawn. The fact that these items are mostly only available in Lootboxes and that you can't get the desired item or a particularly high number of Lootboxes in the normal way without using real money is also critical.

At least after all, they are still only cosmetic items. You don't play better with them and you don't play worse with them – unlike the player packs in Fifa. Anyway, it is a game of chance in both cases. Even with the Lootboxes, you never know beforehand exactly what you will get, it is all left to chance. Only one thing is guaranteed, and that is that the desired object is drawn with a vanishingly small probability and that you have been relieved of a few euros. This would not be a problem if all items, including the Lootboxes, could be earned fairly and without using real money. However, developers are increasingly deciding against this approach and prefer to give players the opportunity to buy their items with real money in a game that was previously purchased around 70€. The profitability of this system is obvious and almost exclusively a win-win situation for the developers and publishers.

The only negative thing that threatens the developer is the bad publicity and damaged reputation that a game offering such gambling features experiences before release day and afterwards. Games like Fifa sell millions of copies year after year despite bad reviews from gamers. On metacritic.com, Fifa 21 on Playstation 5 has a user score of 3.3 out of a possible 10. So why would a developer like EA decide against the internal gambling mechanic? Could it be for ethical reasons, since this system is also used unchecked on minors? In any case, politicians in Germany continue to keep a low profile on this issue and see no need for action for the time being. Nevertheless, admittedly, compared to previous years, more and more games without or at least with weakened forms of gambling are coming onto the market. It seems though as if they only want to appease the players. Because a new game with lootboxes, microtransactions and pay-to-win mechanics is guaranteed to come.

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