Does FIFA Ultimate Team Risk Turning Players Into Gambling Addicts?
My mum doesn’t know it, but she’s actually incredibly lucky she didn’t have me 10 years later. First because she would’ve been well into her 40s, so would have faced endless questions about being a “geriatric” mother from well-meaning NHS staff even as she squeezed out my giant head, but also because if I’d grown up during the age of downloadable content (DLC), in-game purchases and pay-to-play video games, she would no doubt be caught in a terrifyingly dystopian alternate timeline by now, constantly on the run from the debt collectors of EA, Ubisoft and whoever makes Angry Birds.
When I was growing up we had Panini stickers, Kinder Surprise toys, Happy Meals, arcade games and those toys of footy players with massive heads (that for some reason innately spoke to me on a deeply personal level). All of these could be seen to be encouraging children to invest in a risk and reward form of purchasing, or at the very least priming their young minds for the joys of the “mystery box” – a very base form of gambling.
Obviously getting a random toy with chocolate or a burger isn’t the same as actual gambling. But once impressionable children become invested in collecting groups of toys or stickers that are only available via purchasing as many packs as possible until you randomly succeed in completing a set, it doesn’t take a huge leap to put you on the path of enjoying putting money down on other things of a random nature in return for a potentially big reward.
And so it’s proved to be the case with Fifa Ultimate Team, or Fut – a mode of the most popular football video game that involves putting together a team using virtual packs of players. Like Panini but much more expensive, and much more addictive. It is now the subject of a legal case in France, with the claimant arguing that it has been misclassified as an online video game, when it should in fact be a form of gambling. EA has in the past said it has “no ethical conerns” over Fut packs, while in the UK, the DCMS select committee has said that it does not currently consider it gambling.
The game itself might be simple: build a great football squad by winning online matches and gaining coins that you can use to purchase players and further improve your squad. But the bone of contention lies in the aforementioned “card packs”, that as well as being available using in-game currency can also be bought with real cash. And a lot of it. A selection of 12 “rare gold” players (none of which might be those you need or want to improve your squad) will set you back 2,000 Fifa points – over £10 worth – with a less than 5% chance of getting one of the very best, most valuable players.
Speaking from personal experience, when your team is getting battered every game by players who are clearly, from the way they viciously taunt me over their headsets, only 13 years old, the temptation to splash out on a few gold packs to quickly upgrade your team is immense.
Two lawyers from Paris, Karim Morand-Lahouazi and Victor Zagury, are challenging the makers of Fifa, EA, in an attempt to show just how dangerous a Fifa Ultimate Team addiction can be. “The developers of this game mode have created an illusionary and particularly addictive system,” Zagury said to L’Équipe, while channelling his inner Sartre, “We believe that a gambling game has been integrated into this video game because buying packs is nothing more than a bet. It is the logic of a casino that has entered their homes.”
Their client, a 32-year-old chauffeur known as Mamadou, said that he’d already spent €600 (£500) since Fifa 20 came out at the end of September and, worst of all, the best player he’d managed to get was the Napoli and Greece international centre back Kostas Manolas. “I didn’t even know him!” said Mamadou, “I put so much money in just to get Manolas. People I know have put in €2,000 or €3,000, it’s crazy. The amount I have spent has made me fall behind on my rent payments.”
Aside from the fact that Mamadou has just unwittingly unleashed a devastating, instantly meme-able body blow to Manolas from which the footballer’s career may never recover, his life seems to be in genuine disarray in a way that is pretty closely aligned with the dangers of gambling. And what’s worse is the insidious way that spending money on online gaming can take hold. With a casino or bookies, as predatory as they can be, at least you’re overtly aware that what you’re doing is gambling (and it is unavailable to those under 18). With online and mobile pay-to-play gaming, or loot boxes, you’re strung along by a trail of in-game notification highs, acting as breadcrumbs, incrementally spurring you on to spend more and more on improving your team.
“You quickly become addicted to this game,” Mamadou told L’Équipe. “Whenever I buy a pack, I tell myself that this is the last time, but I always do it again. You get so frustrated when you don’t get good enough players that you buy again and again.”
These card packs, along with several other paid-for “loot boxes” (randomly assigned in-game benefits) are banned in the Netherlands and Belgium already, and if this ruling goes against EA in France, it could lead to an EU-wide ban. It’s something that has EA worried, seeing as 20%, or £850m, of EA’s net revenue came from selling Ultimate Team packs in 2018. It’s big business. In this case it has impacted a 32-year-old, but as many horror stories from parents will tell you, it has also affected young, impressionable children who don’t see in-game purchases as spending “real” money and put their parents into huge, spiralling debt.
That doesn’t mean we need to ban Fifa Ultimate Team by the way. There are still many embarrassing defeats I need to avenge before I can let them do that. But surely, with the dangers of gambling apparent, it’s time we start reclassifying what in-game purchases really are and make the deciding factor in games skill, not money spent.
The Guardian Sport