Last Updated on July 7, 2020 by Michael Brockbank
One of the most common ways many game companies are padding their wallets nowadays is through loot boxes and other microtransactions. It’s how developers can continue to keep making money long after selling a game. But are loot boxes the same as a run-of-the-mill slot machine?
According to many players and lawmakers, absolutely.
However, the gaming industry has avoided shutting down loot boxes thanks to technicalities and semantic verbiage. For example, Electronic Arts tried to label them as “Surprise Mechanics.”
A jack in the box is a surprise mechanic. But you don’t have to pay each time to turn the crank, and you know at some point that hideous freakin’ clown is going to jump out.
How Loot Boxes Work in Most Games
To make things clear, today, I’m talking about actual loot boxes where you don’t know what’s in the box until you buy and open one. Microtransactions involving items you can buy in-game that you can see already is another blog post of itself.
A loot box is a digital container which holds randomized goods for any particular game. The more valuable the item is for that game, the lower are the chances you’ll get it after buying the “box.”
Many developers offer these things under the classification of microtransactions. But when you start totaling everything up monetarily, they are anything but “micro.”
If you open one of these boxes and don’t get the item you’re looking for, you’re encouraged to try again. It’s the excitement and psychological pleasure people get from gambling this way that makes it addicting.
In the end, you could wind up spending thousands of dollars and still not get the item of your dreams.
Defining Gambling in Video Games
One argument is how these loot boxes can equate to opening a pack of baseball or Magic: The Gathering cards. You don’t know what you’re getting until you open them up.
And to be honest, that’s a relatively grey area.
After all, it’s a randomized chance to get specific cards. However, you’re not playing a game in order to get them. You’re walking into a Walmart. But, nowadays, that can be a gamble as well.
Walmart, not the card packs.
What separates card packs at the store and loot boxes is the actual definition of gambling. You’re not playing a game when you buy card packs at the register.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of gambling is:
the practice or activity of betting : the practice of risking money or other stakes in a game or bet.
And because you don’t know what’s in loot boxes, you can say that it falls into this category.
In fact, let’s take a look at the definition of a gambling device:
an instrumentality, contrivance, or apparatus reasonably designed and intended for the playing of a game for a reward of money or something of value for the player in which chance is a substantial factor
Some can argue that the contents within a loot box is a “thing of value” as it directly affects the outcome of the game. Looking for that FIFA All-Star? Planning on adding that player to the team?
In this case, the “player,” although digital, is a thing of value that will affect the outcome of the game itself.
Correlating Loot Boxes to Gambling
Thanks to dopamine affecting your behavior, gambling can pose one hell of a problem. It’s all about the sensation of feeling good when you “win” something of value.
A lot of people get addicted to these little hits of dopamine and will keep spending until their bank accounts are dry and they’ve put the house up for mortgage.
Unfortunately, loot boxes cause the same types of behavior as you’d see from a gambling addict. Only this time, it’s more aimed at kids and young adults. Usually, these are people who don’t have the sense to stop before the money is gone.
For the past several years, the Internet has amassed a wide assortment of people who have spent literally thousands of dollars on in-game purchases and “surprise mechanics.” And the root motivator is the exact same as it is with someone playing Black Jack in Las Vegas.
The thrill of hitting it big. It’s the whole mentality of, “The next one will be the last…ok, one more…ok, one more then I’m done.”
One of the biggest issues with this entire setup is how many games are designed to encourage this type of microtransaction.
Whether it’s broadcasting to everyone playing that you found something cool or pitting you against superior players using superior in-game items, you’re faced with “needing” to upgrade regularly.
Or, some game developers will lock “loot only” items that are specifically available in loot boxes and nowhere else.
At any rate, it’s how the brain perceives gambling in general that causes these kinds of things to go south. It doesn’t matter if it’s digital or sitting in front of the dealer, the dopamine levels will spike.
It’s a combination of Fear of Missing Out and the prospect of winning something amazing, even if it’s only available in that particular game.
Why Many Gamers Are Upset About Gambling Mechanics
I remember, back in the day, when game developers cared more about making a fun and engaging game than they did about making billions of dollars. They’d create a title, sell it, then move on to the next project.
Nowadays, most of them try to create a single instance of something that generates money for years to come. It’s all about consistent yearly profits.
Enter the microtransaction.
However, some have taken the experience much too far when it comes to loot boxes. And many gamers are quite upset because of:
Racking Up the Debt
When it comes to gambling in any form, it doesn’t take long to rack up some serious debt. In fact, I maxed out my first credit card in the late 1990s when online gambling was just starting to take off.
It was only a $138 maximum limit, but still, it was quite a bit for someone who made $6.75 per hour.
Shut it, I know I’m old…
My point is that it’s incredibly easy to rack up the debt when it comes to gambling mechanics. Especially if you’re not paying attention to your finances and keep buying more loot boxes.
I’ve had a serious issue with “microtransactions” over the last decade. Perhaps it’s the term, “micro” that has me more flustered. Since when is $20 a “micro” purchase in a $70 game?
If you’re buying skins for your in-game character that had cost roughly a third of the game itself, it’s no longer micro.
Now, I don’t mind if microtransactions are available in free-to-play games, until those items affect the outcome. It’s why I stopped playing Wolf Team years ago. It was clearly a pay-to-win model and regularly upset my chi.
Caring More for Stockholders and Less for Gamers
And the biggest front to gamers as a whole is how many developers today care more about stockholders than the gamers. A good example of this is when Blizzard let go of 800 people in 2019.
Since loot boxes and microtransactions are incredibly lucrative, it’s easier for game developers to make more money. And instead of decreasing absurd CEO salaries and bonuses, the smaller people are axed – to increase profits.
It’s why Bethesda can put out buggy games, EA can fill every title with loot boxes, and Activision can put cash hooks into every move you make. It’s all about the profits, today, and less about the gamer.
UK Passes Bill Regarding the Gaming Industry
In 2020, the UK ruled loot boxes as a form of gambling. This means they’ll fall under the same regulation as a casino. I’m not sure how that looks in the UK, but here in the US, it’s pretty severe depending on the state you live in.
I’m sure that EA and other developers will find loopholes to still include gambling mechanics in the titles, though. It’s too much money, and the developers would have to completely overhaul much of their systems.
However, it seems the world governments are finally pushing to clean up the gaming industry of this predatory practice. Even the United States is considering legislature against loot drops.
And recently, Apple was sued because of loot boxes in the App Store. This goes to show how many brands are viewing the gambling mechanic as a solid money-maker.
How I Avoid Loot Boxes Altogether
There’s been a few times when I was tempted to buy loot boxes in games. However, I am more of a “grindy” type of player. I don’t mind spending hours trying to find, collect, harvest, or otherwise accumulate that which I want.
I’m patient and in no hurry.
There’s very few things that spark the fear-of-missing-out in me. And even then, I usually grind the game until I get the item.
That’s the kind of player I am, though.
I get more personal satisfaction knowing I earned the item. Back when I played EverQuest regularly, I turned down players who wanted to suit me up with incredible gear. I’d rather earn the reward.
To me, it’s far more satisfying knowing that I was able to accomplish what I needed to get the item I wanted. It’s not that I don’t have money to buy loot boxes. I just get more of a high by accomplishing the task.
Do You Think Loot Boxes Are Gambling?
The gaming industry is definitely in a pickle. Between controversies with work ethics, predatory loot boxes, and unregulated practices, lawsuits are plentiful. It’s sad to see so many great brands get sunk in such a way thanks to human greed.
But who knows…maybe one of these developers will rise from the ashes and produce games that intrigue and engage the player instead of the shareholders.
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