Loot boxes are not valid replacements for earned in-game rewards

The Belgium Gaming Commission said loot boxes are “in violation of gambling legislation” in 2018 and were subsequently banned in Belgium altogether. Graphic by Michaeline Collins.

Loot boxes are containers of randomized, digital items that can be purchased in-game with real money. The items in the loot boxes could be a costume for a character or a camouflage for a gun. With few exceptions, the items from loot boxes have no real-world value. At their worst, these containers include items that give players an in-game advantage. At their best, the containers have cosmetics that only change an item’s appearance but still hamper the player’s experience with the game.

Loot boxes constrain video game design. They only serve to increase greedy companies’ profit by targeting vulnerable people who may be predisposed to expressing addictive behavior or may not be old enough to understand the consequences of their actions.

An important distinction to make between loot boxes and randomized rewards is the addition of being able to purchase the former with real-world money. Role-playing games often feature randomized rewards from enemies. For example, a particular boss in a fantasy role-playing game may have the chance to reward the player with a flaming sword or a wand that shoots an icicle. This type of randomization has been implemented in many games and can be very engaging because it allows players to have different experiences and form unique stories about their gameplay experience. It doesn’t require additional purchases.

Loot boxes in Overwatch, a popular first-person shooter developed by Blizzard, are one of the only forms of progression. By progression, I mean things like increasing a player character’s level and gaining new abilities and gear. The loot boxes in Overwatch only contain cosmetic items that change the appearance of player characters and add more voice lines. Even with loot boxes, Overwatch was received very well by critics and the public.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a singleplayer game that features loot boxes with rarities of orcs with randomized traits. Screenshot courtesy of PCGamer.

I’m purposefully not including becoming better at the game as a form of progression because the gaming community as a whole has moved on from that being a compelling reason to keep playing a game. As games have become bigger and more complicated, so have gamers’ expectations of player customization. This shift was only accelerated by the addition of role-playing game elements, such as player levels and randomized rewards to other video game genres.

Star Wars Battlefront II, published by Electronic Arts, wasn’t as well-received as Overwatch. The loot boxes in Battlefront II contained gameplay altering items. For example, players could unlock an ability which caused them to take less damage. This gave players who gained this ability a competitive advantage. Battlefront II was particularly egregious because, to my knowledge, a big blockbuster video game had never implemented pay-to-win mechanics before 2017, at least not with as much public outrage as Battlefront II received.

One Reddit user asked in a post why they paid $80 only to have Darth Vader be locked and unavailable to play. An Electronic Arts community representative replied saying “the intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.” That comment has become the most downvoted comment on Reddit, with over 668,000 downvotes.

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Star Wars Battlefront II became a flashpoint for public discourse about loot boxes as a form of gambling which targets children using characters that are familiar to them. Kerry Hopkins, vice president of legal and government affairs at Electronic Arts, told a UK parliament committee that loot boxes were “surprise mechanics,” not gambling, and therefore didn’t need to be regulated.

I have personally never spent hundreds of dollars on loot boxes in a single game, but there are countless stories about people who have. Zoe Kleinman, a BBC technology reporter, wrote a story about children who have emptied their parents’ bank accounts. The Entertainment Software Rating Board has refused to recognize loot boxes as gambling and indicate their presence in a game’s rating.

Loot boxes are gambling because there is a transaction of currency, whether it’s earned in-game or real money, for an assortment of randomized items of varying rarities. One or more items are clearly the “best” because it’s either the highest rarity or because the player thinks the item looks the coolest. When a player buys a loot box, they are betting that they will get the item they want and will “win.” If I want a rare character costume in Overwatch and buy two loot boxes for $1.99, I’m betting that I will get the costume. Gambling in real life is the exact same. I am betting that I will win more money than I use to play the game.

TotalBiscuit, a YouTuber, published a video titled “I will now talk about Lootboxes and Gambling for just over 40 minutes” in 2017. He explains in more detail the connection between loot boxes and gambling using two notorious video games. His video is a good starting point for learning how detrimental loot boxes are to the video game industry.

One of the points TotalBiscuit makes is that loot boxes display elaborate and flashy animations when the player opens them. This attracts children who are drawn to shiny things and don’t realize they’re spending real money. Another point he makes is that the brain releases more dopamine when there is an uncertain reward than when a reward can be earned on a regular basis. He references B.F. Skinner’s experiments involving operant conditioning.

For parents worried about children buying loot boxes without permission, parental controls are available on all consoles. The Entertainment Software Rating Board has a webpage that lists all the platforms and methods to block games by age rating, control spending, limit playtime and restrict communication with other online players.