Loot boxes etc.: No white flag from central government. It has a duty to act!

Article by Robert Hess

Bonn/Berlin - One day after Gamescom, the world's biggest gaming fair, legal experts met on 28 August 2023 at the online event hosted by "gluecksspielwesen.de" to discuss the question of where the creeping transition from gaming to gambling poses a danger, especially for children and young people, and how such dangers can be countered by regulation. In other words, do loot boxes and other offers akin to gambling have the potential to be a slippery slope towards a real gambling addiction risk, and who needs to take action?

Participants included:

  • Urim Bajrami (MA), Attorney at Law, Vienna
  • Carsten Bringmann, Attorney at Law
  • Dr Lennart Brüggemann, Attorney at Law
  • Professor Dr Julian Krüper, legal scholar and university lecturer at the Ruhr University Bochum
  • Dr Andreas Woerlein, Attorney at Law
  • Axel Weber, Head of Responsible Gaming, Westdeutsche Lotterie

Gamescom 2023 in Cologne brought it into sharp relief yet again. Policymakers, starting with the Federal Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Action and the Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, are praising the sector's innovativeness. This is undisputed, generating EUR 9.9 billion in sales in 2022! In-game purchases accounted for EUR 4.459 billion of this, or almost every second euro. Loot boxes are also part of this.

But there is a dark side to these impressive figures - the risk of a slippery slope towards addiction for children and young people. We heard little if anything about this at Gamescom. At least not officially and certainly not as part of the program. Only the SPD parliamentary group in the North Rhine-Westphalian parliament made a statement, emphasising of course that videogaming is an important economic contributor for Germany, but at the same time flagging the challenges associated with this. The SPD expects the North Rhine-Westphalian government to take appropriate measures to regulate problematic gambling elements (such as loot boxes).

This was also the main thrust of the aforementioned online event. Where and how can a mechanism be put in place to ward off these dangers? As legislation in the jurisdiction of youth protection, youth media protection or under gambling law? If regulation is not established, some experts of the discussion group by all means expect court cases in this vein, akin to those in Austria. The responsible regulators in Germany are simply biding their time, giving the impression of shirking their regulatory responsibility and ever passing the buck somewhere else.

The panel of experts quickly agreed that regulation in the Interstate Treaty on Gambling would not be expedient and that youth protection law would be the right legal home for this. Central government was seen as being responsible here, but as currently waving the white flag. This impression is reinforced if one consults the minutes of the 10th Conference of Consumer Protection Ministers on 30 June 2023 (www.verbraucherschutzministerkonferenz.de). The ministers had asked central government to report on this. In the request for a report made to central government, the ministers assume that the informed use of in-app purchases is not sufficiently ensured. But for children and young people especially, there is also a need for action in terms of protecting them better from economic harm.

There is then also talk of capping the purchase amounts and of a pay-in limit across providers. The Federal Government is aware of the problem, but for the moment is still assuming that it is the providers that are responsible. For the moment, one has to underline, because the pressure to act is growing.

But it is now up to central government, the experts are saying, to take the initiative and swiftly find a Germany-wide solution. Practicable solutions now have to finally be found, and fast. Axel Weber from Westdeutsche Lotterie's proposal of establishing a round table where policymakers (so regulators), providers, academia and the prevention community exchange ideas and look for solutions together met with great approval in the expert group as a first step.

At the Bundeskongress zum Glücksspielwesen (Federal Congress on Gaming and Gambling) on 5 October 2023 in Berlin, gluecksspielwesen.de will be hosting another discussion group with legal experts and MPs from the Bundestag on these questions. Lena Werner, Member of the Bundestag (SPD), Linda Heitmann, Member of the Bundestag (Alliance 90/The Greens) will be there as policymakers, as will Fabian Gramling, Member of the Bundestag (CDU/CSU) in the form of a video message, gluecksspielwesen.de has announced.

If you are interested, you can watch the full webinar again right here.