I was originally going to lump Loot Boxes and Micro-Transaction together and have one article that covered both but in the end I just wouldn’t have been able to do both topics justice if I watered them both down for one piece. There is far too much to say on both subjects, so as such they are both getting their own spotlight. Plus since I quite enjoyed the change of tone in my article about conflict minerals I’ve decided I wanted to ride the momentum of this wave and see how many more pieces I can fire out before it subsides.
Loot Boxes (for those who are unaware), are items in video games that contain random loot which can vary from cosmetic items (such as skins or costumes), gameplay items (such as weapons or characters) or in game currency. How to achieve Loot Boxes varies from game to game but the usual methods are through in-game achievements (such as levelling up your character or team) or by purchasing them using either in-game or real currency.
In a number of countries across the globe there have been discussions raised asking whether or not Loot Boxes are a form of gambling due to the rising numbers of video games containing them that are aimed at children as well as the addictive nature that surrounds them. People who are pro Loot Boxes will argue that they are not gambling as you cannot trade your Loot Box prizes for real currency in the same way as casino chips for example, plus since you are guaranteed a set number of prizes for each loot box there is no risk of loss, much in the same way as a toy gumball machine will always guarantee you a prize. On the other hand however, those opposed to them will tell you that since they are a game of chance and the addictive nature of them, they should be classed as gambling and as such not marketed to children.
I personally think the subject is far too complex to sit wholly on one side or the other. I personally don’t think they should be classed as gambling. I see loot boxes in the same light as Pokemon cards or football stickers but nobody’s been in an uproar about these being a form of gambling. The main thing to me is that in gambling there is an element of winning and losing. You can get a return on your stake or you can loose it, this isn’t true with Loot Boxes. Like trading cards you are guaranteed a set number of rewards, you don’t get any more or less each time you buy. It’s also true that some items will be rarer than others but in the end you still get something. With this in mind, a tombola is closer akin to gambling than loot boxes but we still let our kids buy tickets.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a problem with loot boxes in their current format. The biggest being that even if there is debate about whether or not they are classed as gambling, they still create the same feeling that gambling does, which can lead to gambling addiction. This can potentially be dangerous, especially since a lot of games with loot boxes are available to children, who are more mentally susceptible to addiction. This is what leads some people into spending thousands on loot boxes and other micro-transactions (I will go into this in more depth in my post on Micro-transactions).
So how do people get addicted to loot boxes? It’s the same way people get addicted to gambling, some people win big and get one of the rarest items and continue buying in order to re-create that winning feeling, some will keep playing because they have had poor box after poor box and will keep going wishing to “recoup their losses” or that “the next one will be the winner”. There are many reasons but what most of them have in common is that they all chase some sort of reward and a sense of a high that comes with it. As these players “win” more they can become desensitised to winning causing them to take higher risks in order to maintain the same states of euphoria.
I understand why the games industry has shifted to including elements like loot boxes and micro-transactions. With the rising development costs as games get bigger and require more staff and resources. In order to keep the game costs low for the gamers, developers have to subsidise the cost by generating revenue elsewhere. Back in 2016 US$650million was spent on EA’s Ultimate Team Player Packs across all their sports games, accounting for about half of EA’s entire micro-transaction revenue that year.
I do believe that the games industry should be doing more to combat problems caused by loot boxes. They should be making sure that those who buy loot boxes can do so in such a manner that it is sustainable. Games should be just as playable with or without loot boxes in order to allow them to be an addition to the game rather than one of it’s major components. Warnings should be provided to help warn both gamers and parents about the contents of the games they are playing or buying for their children, and support should be made available to those who need help. Laws should be put in place to enforce this as well. Here in the UK the Gambling Act was last updated in 2005, long before anyone saw the rise of loot boxes. In the case of children, parents should take an active interest in the games their children play and the content within them. Being a little game savvy will help both you understand the games your kids are playing and also provide a new ground of common interest. If we all band together and do our bit we can protect the most vulnerable among us without sacrificing on the games we love.