Thursday, 27 September 2018
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to the House. I thank him for being here. The issue of loot boxes and gambling has grown into national and international prominence in recent months. Loot boxes could pose gambling risks for children and at-risk adults. They represent an area of huge and growing concern for parents and people prone to gambling addiction. I have raised the matter in the House on a number of occasions and I have also raised it in light of the Irish representatives signing a declaration at the 2018 meeting of the Gaming Regulators European Forum, in which the Minister for Justice and Equality's Department was involved. It is important to acknowledge that this matter is on the Minister of State's radar.
Loot boxes are a consumable virtual item which can be redeemed to receive a randomised selection of in-game items ranging from customisation options for a character to game-changing equipment such as weapons and armour to increases in in-game currency received. I must admit that the matter is one with which I am not 100% familiar. I am very fortunate that I have a very good friend who advises me on many ongoing developments in this area, Mr. Eoin Barry from Cork. Both of us have been in discussion with representatives from the gaming industry and from the Interactive Software Federation of Europe, ISFE, for a period of time. I acknowledge that we have met Mr. David Sweeney. The declaration which emerged from the European forum stated: "Our authorities are committed to the objectives of their public policies with regard to consumer protection, prevention of problem gambling and ensuring the safety of underage persons."
Cork has been become pronounced as a city associated with gaming and it is fair to say that computer gaming is a hobby enjoyed by millions of people around the world and that e-sports have become a global phenomenon in recent years. Unfortunately, there are concerns regarding the potential exposure to addictive behaviour such as gambling. This is where loot boxes have crept into the gaming scene and have become a topical issue not only for gamers, but for parents and governments around the world. We are not trying to change the experience of those who are committed to, and who participate in, gaming in any way. We are, however, trying to look at the aspects relating to addiction, gambling and compulsion, which is what loot boxes play into. There was an example in Cork when the story emerged of a young boy who spent a month of his mother's wages on FIFA 18.This gaming uses a loot box system whereby players are distributed randomly from packs. Even videos of people unboxing loot boxes are a genuine phenomenon. The important thing here is that loot boxes can be compared to traditional gaming in a number of ways. First, the win state of a loot box is a gamble. Second, in the loot box models there is a way to force a win state. The important point here is that there have been changes internationally that have emanated from various countries. For example, the Belgian Gaming Commission deemed in May 2018 that many forms of loot boxes constitute gambling and recommended prosecutions against companies which did not desist in their sale. Electronic Arts, which has a studio in Galway, has a different viewpoint from Belgium's interpretation and has chosen not to remove them from gaming sold on the Belgian market. A couple of cases are taking place this month.
My time is nearly up. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, for being here. I know he has been very proactive on the issue of gambling, including online gambling, and this particular matter. This is a conversation we are starting to have in this country. I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting the matter for discussion. I again thank Eoin Barry for advising me and for his work with me.
I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this issue and for his continued interest in this whole area. The issue of loot boxes and online video games has received significant media attention in recent days. There are three elements to this matter which I wish to highlight. First, Ireland was happy to join in the declaration from the Gaming Regulators European Forum, GREF, on the undesirability of games, particularly those with huge popularity, crossing the line into offering services that might normally be described as gambling. GREF is a voluntary association of European gambling regulatory authorities in which Ireland participates. Second, while the declaration does not have legal effect, it reflects concern among national authorities that online gaming products should be appropriately licensed if they offer gambling possibilities. A key purpose of the declaration is to alert parents to potential issues arising from in-game purchases. Parents have primary responsibility to protect their children in this regard. Third, where a game offers the possibility of placing a bet or taking risk for financial reward within the game, it must, in my view, be licensed as a gambling product. To offer gambling products in Ireland, a licence is required under the Betting Acts 1931 to 2015 or the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956.
The Revenue Commissioners are the primary responsible licensing authority under both Acts, with some involvement of the Minister for Justice and Equality. However, it should be understood that if a game offers in-game purchases - be they loot boxes, skins, etc. - which are promoted to gamers as increasing their chances of success, such purchases are essentially a commercial or e-commerce activity. This activity would fall within normal consumer law. If there is dissatisfaction with the purchase or how it is promoted, objections should be directed to the appropriate authority. My Department has no role either in the regulation of game developers as to how their games work or in the offering of in-game purchases.
Work is ongoing on modernising aspects of gambling law. The Government has approved a number of my proposals to update and modernise the 2013 general scheme of a gambling control Bill. These included the establishment of an independent regulatory authority for the gambling industry to conduct the complex range of licensing, regulating, monitoring, inspecting and enforcement tasks required for the industry. An interdepartmental working group on gambling has completed its review of the 2013 general scheme of a gambling control Bill and is preparing its report for submission to Government very shortly, in autumn 2018.
What the Senator has highlighted is the complexity of this area and how quickly it is developing and changing. I reiterate to parents my call for them to become more aware of what is going on with these loot boxes and online video games. The issue of addiction is a matter for the Minister for Health, as are all other addictions.
Yes, I will be very brief. I thank the Minister of State for his reply and welcome both the ongoing review and the legislative modernisation of the general scheme of the gambling control Bill that is under way. The debate this morning is welcome and necessary. It is a conversation that is happening internationally and nationally and it is an important debate. We have, as the Minister of State said, complex regulation that we need to update for loot boxes. Part of the debate is about digital safety and whether loot boxes enable gambling. This is a global conversation of which we are a part, and I believe we need to provide learning benefit and tackle the negative impact and effects of unsupervised access to technology. I thank the Minister of State. We will have a further conversation on the matter, and I hope that as part of this we can reach out to those in the know. I thank again people like Eoin Barry who brought this to my attention.
I thank Senator Buttimer for his further comments on this matter and for his interest and support. I have endeavoured to separate the various elements involved here. The declaration referred to is intended to let the gaming industry know that where their games involve in-game purchases, which are offers to gamble, these games would fall to be regulated under gambling legislation. Many other states share our concern in this regard. Where the games do not involve invitations to bet, they fall under the appropriate legislation dealing with the sale and-or distribution of video games. This is the Video Recordings Act 1989, under which video games are exempted works for classification purposes unless they fall within the terms provided for in section 3(1)(a) or (b), which cover the grounds for their prohibition. Ireland is part of the Pan European Game Information system, which is a Europe-wide voluntary rating system for video games.
Debate on this issue has highlighted the need to progress the modernisation of our gambling laws to ensure there is clarity and protection for all those who use gambling services. A significant amount of work has been undertaken, as I said, within Government to develop revised proposals to better reflect the required extent of the State's engagement with a modern Irish gambling environment. I am a little frustrated that we have not progressed the matter further than we have done, but it is very complex - far more complex than many of us had realised. We are working as hard as we can to bring forward this modernisation.