Loot boxes, or loot crates, have been a hot topic in the video game industry for the past couple of years. Central to the debate is EA Sports’ long-running FIFA football simulation series, and its increasingly lucrative Ultimate Team (FUT) mode.

But as loot boxes have gained popularity, so too has the scrutiny they have come under from governments and regulators, who believe them, at their core, to be disguised forms of gambling. In light of an announcement of an FTC workshop based around the issue, could the US be the next country to ban the practice of in-game loot crates?

For the uninitiated, loot boxes are essentially randomised collections of in-game items that users can purchase using a title’s virtual currency. In the case of FIFA’s Ultimate Team, this means purchasing player packs with FIFA Points, the series’ in-game currency that can be bought using real money, or earned in-game (where they are known as FUT Coins). The probability of receiving particular players in a pack to add to the roster of the user’s Ultimate Team varies; with higher-quality and legendary players being much rarer to receive.

Are loot boxes a form of gambling?

The randomised nature of FIFA’s loot box system, coupled with the fact that users can spend real money to purchase the points required to unlock more packs, has led many to suggest that EA is essentially offering a form of unregulated gambling within its titles; titles that, in the case of FIFA, are at least partially – if not predominantly – marketed to children.

The issue was highlighted following the release of EA’s Star Wars Battlefront 2, with players complaining they would have to spend hundreds of pounds – otherwise, grind for thousands of hours – in order to unlock some of the title’s more coveted playable characters such as Darth Vader. Naturally, this made both players and legislators uneasy, with EA eventually scrapping the controversial practice from the title. However, FIFA’s FUT packs remain a core part of that particular franchise to this day.

Unlike the top casino sites in the UK, which are tightly regulated and certified by the gambling commission and aimed at players over 18, in-game loot boxes have no such controls. As a result, EA has increasingly come under fire from those who believe the company is essentially conditioning and pushing youngsters towards a form of gambling. The Belgium Gaming Commission ruled last year that loot crates were an “illegal game of chance”, as users had no way of knowing what they were going to get in a pack, and threatened criminal action against several games publishers, including EA.

FIFA Points withdrawn from sale in Belgium

Despite the gaming giant initially refusing to budge on the matter, it confirmed in January of this year that it would stop the sale of FIFA Points in the country. “After further discussions with the Belgian authorities, we have decided to stop offering FIFA Points for sale in Belgium,” it said in a brief statement. Belgian players can still access FUT packs, but they must do so using in-game FUT Coins rather than purchasing them with real money.

And Belgium isn’t the only country to investigate whether loot boxes constitute a form of gambling. The governments of France, Sweden and Germany have all vowed to investigate the practice further, although the UKIE has suggested that loot boxes are “already covered by and fully compliant with existing relevant UK regulations” and require no further action. It will be interesting to see what results from the FTC workshop in August, as a ban on the practice in the US could lead publishers to reconsider their position globally.