“Vending machines offering mystery prizes have been deemed illegal by the police” (Mystery Prize Vending Machines Illegal: Police, Timothy Goh and Tiffany Fumiko Tay).
The public advisory issued by the police against “mystery prize vending machines” – which “dispense random prizes upon receipt of cash payment” (ST, Aug. 17) – stating that the machines are a form of public lottery, raises questions about whether this regulation should apply to video-game loot boxes or similar products offered on e-commerce websites, and the extent to which public education, with the aim of encouraging individuals to be more informed and to take responsibility for their own decisions, ought to be strengthened. With the video-game loot boxes or e-commerce websites, in particular, the statement by the police that “the public should seek their own legal advice on such matters” appears inadequate.
Video-game loot boxes operate on the same principle as these vending machines, since players pay a small amount of money to procure additional content or to obtain or win unpredictable rewards. With further comparisons drawn to compulsive gambling and attention drawn to the gullible or to the vulnerable – such as young children, who may not be aware of the dynamic between real cash payments and virtual rewards (or in some instances, the chance to win rewards) – it will be increasingly untenable to regulate the vending machines under the Common Gaming Houses Act while ignoring digital developments. Around the world, in fact, there have been calls to extend existing gambling regulations to video games and e-commerce operations.
And in the longer term, public education cannot be premised upon a simple “gambling (addiction) is necessarily deleterious” message, which by extension discourages individuals from most, if not all forms of gambling. That some satisfaction could be derived from these aforementioned vending machines and loot boxes, for instance – like lottery in general – cannot be disregarded, and instead a more productive strategy would be to educate Singaporeans on the financial principles and odds of these mechanisms, which are inevitably stacked against users. First, it does not erode the underlying importance of self-responsibility; and second, rather than having the state make decisions for them, users make their own.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.