Loot Boxes: To gamble or not to gamble?

Players across the world are forcing a conversation within communities about loot boxes. Loot boxes have always been around in some capacity, and it’s place fits somewhere within the broader topic of “microtransactions”. There is, and always has been, a talk about microtransactions within video games that they either serve no purpose or give a “pay to win” boost to players with money. However, the talk this time is different. Players, gaming companies, and even the ESRB, are debating on whether or not loot boxes are considered gambling.

It’s hard to exactly pinpoint how this conversation arose, however, it is clear that players are drawing lines in the sand and expressing their concern about how loot boxes are changing the way they view and play video games.

For some players, loot boxes have become a piece of the game. Using Overwatch as the clear example, there are many ways to grab some loot boxes without spending any extra money. Arcades, leveling up, and the like, all reward the player for playing the game. Of course, you still may not get the skin or other loot you’re looking for. For many other players, however, paying money for loot boxes is akin to gambling. Players put good in, in the hopes, that they get good out. The problem is, technically, players are receiving “good” from the loot boxes, just perhaps not the good the player is looking for. It may not be Zarya’s latest 80’s Halloween Skin, but it is still a prize.

In a more extreme and recent example, players of the latest Star Wars: Battlefront 2 open beta were impressed with the gameplay, but not its loot box system. Loot boxes in the Star Wars FPS allow players to gain access to weapons, credits, emotes, skins, and so on. The big deal here, of course, being the weapons and credits. DICE responded to player criticisms, saying that they would work on a way to make sure that the most powerful items would be obtained only through the in-game acquisition of loot boxes, not with microtransactions. Similarly, even with certain microtransactions, DICE says that you still need to have a specific rank to access specific perks gained from loot boxes.

Most free-to-play MMORPGs, especially those that come out of South Korea, like Maplestory, have always had the most extreme form of “loot box” known amongst players as Gachapon. The idea is the same: players buy an item that contains more items inside. Some of them, rare and extremely helpful and that reward the player incredibly - like EXP boosts or weapons - and others, such as a skin or something purely cosmetic. Sometimes, these items cannot even be found through playing the game normally and are unique to Gachapon.

Still, with games like Star Wars and even Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor adding loot box systems, players are still not all that excited.

Arguably, most players are starting to come around to the idea that loot boxes are a form of gambling. Gambling, as defined by the dictionary, is to “play a game for money” or to bet money. The ESRB gave a statement to Kotaku about this idea.

“ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling. While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player, unfortunately, receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.”

Put short, the ESRB says that as long as you receive a prize from the loot box, then it cannot be considered gambling, regardless of if the prize is what you wanted or not. The ESRB includes in their statement that, while it is similar, it is not the same.

This doesn’t change the fact that players are supporting the end of loot boxes. Some players cite a “pay to win” attitude as their reason for cutting loot boxes. Others cite gambling and exploitation.

A PC Gamer article suggests that loot boxes are kind of seductive, unpredictable, and addictive, and that appeals to players.

"It's that moment of excitement that anything's possible," Ben Thompson, art director on Hearthstone, told Alex Wiltshire of PC Gamer. "In that moment I could be getting the cards I've been looking for ten or 20 packs. That anticipation has always been a key point in games in general; successful games build on anticipation and release, whether a set of effects or in gameplay."

Despite the science and the strange wonder behind loot boxes, what seems to be driving the issue, is children.

Even the most hardcore of a gamer cannot deny that there are, and will be children playing a lot of these games and that they will bring their money (or their parent’s money) with them. Many believe that by glorifying the buying of loot boxes, companies are also approving of child gambling and, not to mention, gambling addictions in adults.

On a slightly lighter note, some gamers are simply upset by the lack of choice and the reliance on “RNG” for what should be a reward.

The issue against loot boxes has become so widespread and perhaps controversial, that U.K. lawmakers have received a petition concerning loot boxes and it’s connection to gambling and should be responding to said petition in Parliament soon.

The petition seems unclear on a solution, however, it does cite China’s laws that game developers must disclose probabilities and statistics regarding drop rates on loot boxes. It is a perhaps a stepping stone into larger regulations on video games that may promote some form of gambling, but are not explicitly gambling games.

This issue seems to be a no-brainer among just about all of the gaming community. From Hearthstone to Star Wars, it seems that players consider this nothing but exploitation, and would see an end to loot box practices as soon as possible.