Turning players into payers: Is it time to regulate the video game industry?

Mental health experts warn the lines between video gaming and gambling are blurring, and now the Green Party are calling for tighter regulation of the lucrative gaming industry.

"As a parent, I'm worried that it's a gateway to gambling for children, and as a legislator, I think our rules and laws need to keep up with changing technology," says Gareth Hughes, Green Party spokesperson for Digital Media.

"The Gambling Act was written in 2003 [and] that was pre the massive online game phenomenon we've seen. 125 million people are playing Fortnite around the world right now."

Critics argue that in-game purchases such as 'loot boxes' where players can spend real money on a random virtual reward are just gambling by another name.

Academics agree, with AUT addiction specialist Professor Max Abbott warning of an increasing convergence between the two sectors.

"As far as I'm concerned it's gambling... it's going in both directions, the industries are starting to merge."

Overseas, governments are already regulating.

Belgium, China and the Netherlands have all made it illegal to charge real money for virtual loot boxes. But despite these moves towards regulation, the industry continues to surge in profits.

Gaming is now one of the most lucrative forms of entertainment on the planet, eclipsing both film and music, and forecast to earn $207 billion in 2018.

In April, Grand Theft Auto V became the most profitable single piece of entertainment media in history, earning over $9 billion to date.

And some experts warn these profits are partly driven by intentionally addictive games which function like digital slot machines.

Dr Paul Ralph, Director of GameLab at Auckland University, told Newshub Nation: "Candy Crush is the best example. Candy Crush is a digital slot machine... and Candy Crush is way more effective at making you addicted to it than any slot machine you'd ever find in a real casino."

This year the World Health Organisation (WHO) formally recognised video game addiction as a disorder, with many of the same symptoms of gambling addiction.

However, some experts claim the current definition, which includes symptoms such as 'increased priority given to gaming over other activities', is too broad.

"Does most of society have 'working disorder' where your job interferes with the rest of your life, do we call that working disorder? It goes on forever because we can obsess about anything," says Dr Ralph.

Stephen Knightly, from the New Zealand Video Game Developers, says loot boxes and other small optional payments, called 'microtransactions', are just an economic necessity.

"Most people, 90 percent, don't pay for games. Loot boxes are one tool game developers use to make money."

Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin calls New Zealand’s Gambling Act 'outdated' and says regulation is on the way - but warns it could take up to 15 months.

"I've taken an oral item to one of our cabinet committees and I'm going to be taking back a paper discussion document about work that I want to progress to update our gambling rules."

In the meantime, she advises not overstating the problem.

"Yes, 67 percent of Kiwis game. But that doesn't mean that all fall into that area of addiction, it's like anything else.

"There are some of our people more vulnerable than others, but how are we protecting them? And right now our legislation doesn't give us the opportunity to protect those that are vulnerable."

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