Immersive and addictive technologies Contents

Conclusions and Recommendations


1.Having struggled to get clear answers and useful information from companies across the games industry in particular, we hope that our inquiry and this report serve to focus all in the industry—particularly large, multinational companies whose games are played all over the world—on their responsibilities to protect their players from potential harms and to observe the relevant legal and regulatory frameworks in all countries their products reach. (Paragraph 12)

Psychosocial harms of immersive technologies

2.Although the vast majority of people who play games find it a positive experience, the minority who struggle to maintain control over how much they are playing experience serious consequences for them and their loved ones. At present, the games industry has not sufficiently accepted responsibility for either understanding or preventing this harm. Moreover, both policy-making and potential industry interventions are being hindered by a lack of robust evidence, which in part stems from companies’ unwillingness to share data about patterns of play. (Paragraph 34)

3.The Department should immediately update its areas of research interest to include gaming disorder, working with researchers to identify the key questions that need to be addressed and develop a strategy to support high-quality, independent research into the long-term effects of gaming. (Paragraph 35)

4.The Government should also require games companies to share aggregated player data with researchers and to contribute financially to independent research through a levy administered by an impartial body. We believe that the industry should pay a levy to fund an independent body formed of academics and representatives of the industry to oversee research into online gaming and to ensure that the relevant data is made available from the industry to enable it to be effective. (Paragraph 36)

5.Immersive technologies including online games and virtual reality facilitate interaction between users and user-generated content. Given the technological sophistication of the games industry, and the popularity of its products among children, there is more that companies could be doing to safeguard players, and the future online harms regulator will need to pay due attention to monitoring the industry’s efforts in this regard. (Paragraph 51)

6.There are inconsistencies in the games industry’s self-regulation around the distribution of games. If companies hold that it is not their responsibility, but that of parents, to enforce age ratings, and parents themselves are not willing or able to do so, further legislation may be needed to protect children from playing games that are not appropriate for their age. This could include extending the statutory duties that apply to physical distribution to the online distribution of games. Likewise, games companies should not assume that the responsibility to enforce age-ratings applies exclusively to the main delivery platforms: all companies and platforms that are making games available online should uphold the highest standards of enforcing age-ratings. The Video Recordings Act should be amended to ensure that online games are covered by the same enforceable age restrictions as games sold on disks. (Paragraph 57)

Financial harms of immersive technologies

7.We believe that any gambling-related harms associated with gaming should be recognised under the online harms framework. To inform this work, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport should immediately establish a scientific working group to collate the latest evidence relating to the effects of gambling-like mechanics in games. The group should produce an evidence-based review of the effects of gambling-like game mechanics, including loot boxes and other emerging trends, to provide clarity and advice. This should be done within a timescale that enables it to inform the Government’s forthcoming online harms legislation. (Paragraph 72)

8.We recommend that loot boxes that contain the element of chance should not be sold to children playing games, and instead in-game credits should be earned through rewards won through playing the games. In the absence of research which proves that no harm is being done by exposing children to gambling through the purchasing of loot boxes, then we believe the precautionary principle should apply and they are not permitted in games played by children until the evidence proves otherwise. (Paragraph 79)

9.Loot box mechanics are integral to major games companies’ revenues and evidence that they facilitate profiting from problem gamblers should be of serious concern to the industry. We recommend that working through the PEGI Council and all other relevant channels, the UK Government advises PEGI to apply the existing ‘gambling’ content labelling, and corresponding age limits, to games containing loot boxes that can be purchased for real-world money and do not reveal their contents before purchase. (Paragraph 86)

10.We agree with the Gambling Commission that games companies should be doing more to prevent in-game items from being traded for real-world money, or being used in unlicensed gambling. These uses are a direct result of how games are designed and monetised, and their prevalence of undermines the argument that loot boxes are not a form of gambling. Moreover, we believe that the existing concept of ‘money’s worth’ in the context of gambling legislation does not adequately reflect people’s real-world experiences of spending in games. (Paragraph 97)

11.We consider loot boxes that can be bought with real-world money and do not reveal their contents in advance to be games of chance played for money’s worth. The Government should bring forward regulations under section 6 of the Gambling Act 2005 in the next parliamentary session to specify that loot boxes are a game of chance. If it determines not to regulate loot boxes under the Act at this time, the Government should produce a paper clearly stating the reasons why it does not consider loot boxes paid for with real-world currency to be a game of chance played for money’s worth. (Paragraph 98)

The role of data, design and business models

12.Data on how long people play games for is essential to understand what normal and healthy—and, conversely, abnormal and potentially unhealthy—engagement with gaming looks like. Games companies collect this information for their own marketing and design purposes; however, in evidence to us, representatives from the games industry were wilfully obtuse in answering our questions about typical patterns of play. (Paragraph 110)

13.It is of serious concern that there is simply no effective system in place to keep children off age-restricted platforms and games. The reactive way in which platforms are dealing with this problem further highlights the problems of online industries rolling out products without considering, or mitigating against, their potential adverse effects on users. (Paragraph 118)

14.The games industry’s emphasis on player choice does not acknowledge the way in which many games use random reward mechanisms that have been scientifically proven to create repetitive behaviours, and the effect that this might have on the meaningful exercise of choice. Moreover, the reluctance to discuss engagement metrics or to acknowledge the psychological impact of core design principles in evidence to us suggests that highly-skilled designers either do not know the data and psychological studies and strategies that underpin their industry or, what is more likely, do not feel comfortable admitting it in a public forum. For an industry generating such high revenues from so many millions of players worldwide, that lack of transparency is unacceptable. (Paragraph 127)

15.During this inquiry we have heard that online games and social media are both data-driven industries that use asymmetrical information and deliberate design practices to manipulate users into spending more time or money on their platforms. The argument that engagement is purely a user’s free choice is undermined by the amount of data collected about them and the use of that data alongside design features, such as random reward mechanics, that have been proven to have powerful psychological effects. (Paragraph 145)

16.To provide clarity for policy-makers and the public, the Government should outline in its response to this report how it intends to support independent research into the application, extent and effect of design mechanics used in digital technologies to extend user engagement. Such research should then inform the development of a behavioural design code of practice for online services. This should be developed within an adequate timeframe to inform the future online harms regulator’s work around “designed addiction” and “excessive screen time”. (Paragraph 146)

Supporting responsible design and industry initiatives

17.We believe that the ICO’s age-appropriate design code is a positive step in addressing the potential impact on children of design mechanics within digital technologies that are aimed at extending user engagement; however, it will not apply to technologies exclusively designed for, or age-gated to, adults. Yet we have heard that disordered technology use or spending can be experienced at any stage in life. We therefore welcome the Government’s intention for “excessive screen time” and “designed addiction” to be monitored by the future online harms regulator. However, we believe greater clarity about the Government’s intention in those areas, and a clear plan for understanding and dealing with those harms from the outset, are needed for the regulator to be immediately effective in this area. (Paragraph 156)

18.Over the course of our inquiry we have heard about how esports is a rapidly maturing sector with clear Government support. There are significant opportunities for the development of esports in the UK to harness best practice in the use and monetisation of player data, which could serve as a model for other parts of the games industry. There is also scope for esports to go further in the promotion of player wellbeing and promotion of healthy gaming in schools. We ask the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to lay out within the next six months how a similar framework to the duty of care practices enshrined and enforced by the governing bodies of other sports can best be applied within esports. (Paragraph 167)

19.The malicious creation and distribution of deepfake videos should be regarded as harmful content. The release of content like this could try to influence the outcome of elections and undermine people’s public reputation. Social media platforms should have clear policies in place for the removal of deepfakes. In the UK, the Government should include action against deepfakes as part of the duty of care social media companies should exercise in the interests of their users, as set out in the Online Harms White Paper. (Paragraph 172)

20.What we have heard about the games industry’s attempts to tackle the gender imbalance in the workforce echoes its approach to understanding and tackling the potential harms of its games on players: while some take their responsibilities seriously, others could be doing much more. (Paragraph 180)

Published: 12 September 2019