Why Electronic Arts has proven it can’t be trusted to self-regulate
By Henry Veloso
On July 19, 2019, Kerry Hopkins, vice president of legal and government affairs for the American game development company Electronic Arts (EA) testified before a UK Parliament hearing in defense of EA’s use of lootboxes in their video games. Digital items purchasable with real money, lootboxes can be redeemed to give players a randomly generated reward, which may either affect their gameplay or their characters’ appearances.
When Hopkins told the UK Parliament that lootboxes were not a form of gambling, but instead were completely legal “surprise mechanics”, it resulted in a PR disaster of epic proportions for EA. Hopkins’ response has been widely mocked on the Internet, both by mainstream news outlets like Polygon and Kotaku, and by members of online communities like Know Your Meme. These individuals were incensed by not only lootboxes’ clear nature as a form of gambling, but EA’s Refusal to acknowledge customers’ dissatisfaction with having to pay real money for an uncertain reward. However, this incident is only the latest in a string of controversies regarding EA’s use of lootboxes in games.
In 2017, EA was the center of a massive controversy regarding their game Star Wars Battlefront II, in which players control iconic Star Wars characters to fight against one another. Reddit users calculated that assuming no other items were purchased, it would take approximately 40 hours of gameplay to unlock characters like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. However, if players paid $80 for a lootbox, they would have a chance to those characters, though as per the nature of lootboxes they might instead unlock a slightly more efficient sidearm.
EA’s response to Reddit users’ complaints, claiming that they intended “to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment” when unlocking new characters, was also met with widespread derision, becoming the most downvoted post in Reddit history. The controversy spiraled far beyond EA’s ability to control it, to the point where Disney executives called EA to discuss the damage their actions were inflicting on the Star Wars brand. Eventually, EA made the decision to remove all microtransactions from Battlefront II at launch, but they had already kickstarted an international discussion on the ethics of lootboxes.
This is not the first time video games have been forced into the public eye due to controversy. During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, video games were heavily criticized for their frequent inclusion of violent content. This eventually culminated in the establishment of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which serves to rate games based on the degree of mature content present in them.
Given history’s propensity to repeat itself, the present controversy surrounding lootboxes could culminate in the establishment of a new international organization dedicated to policing microtransactions in gaming. While government regulation is by no means a panacea, and may at times serve to exacerbate the issues they regulate, Electronic Arts has repeatedly proven itself unable or unwilling to recognize the errors in its current business methodologies. To allow them to continue to perpetuate practices that exploit consumers is not only irresponsible, but downright unethical.