Are Loot boxes gambling? : An Analysis

The controversy around loot boxes in video games, have been in the spotlight for a little while. One of the main instigators of this, was the Star Wars: Battlefront 2 loot box scandal. After this, numerous countries revised whether loot boxes would be allowed, as people began to question whether they were technically considered gambling. This was especially a concern for many, due to the number of children who played a lot of these games. This essay will explore the concerns around loot boxes: what they are, the sorts of games they are in, and the stances countries are taking, as well as what the future is for loot boxes in games.

Overwatch lootbox

So firstly, what is the history of loot boxes?

Loot boxes are generally believed to have been inspired by card games.  The system by which card games like Magic: The Gathering, and Pokémon utilize, where you lay out money for a blind packet in the hope it contains the cards you are needing. From there, popular mmo’s and mobile games began to jump onto the micro-transaction train, before it finally hit mainstream FPS games with Team Fortress 2. The popularity of this mechanic only grew from there, with the Call of Duty games introducing drops and leading to games such as Overwatch and FIFA[1]utilizing them as well. The increase of loot boxes in multiplayer games seem only to be rising, with newer multiplayer games often coming with some way to pay for additional  items. There have even been some single player games attempting to introduce as look box system, albeit unsuccessfully.

So, what has caused the concern?

The tables started to turn on loot boxes in 2017, when the progression system in the popular Star Wars series, Star Wars Battlefront 2, came under fire. The main problem gamers had with this game, was that in order to play as the stronger hero characters (characters from the films) it would take roughly 40 hours of grinding to earn, or, you can unlock the heroes with in-game currency. This currency of course, you pay for with real money.[2] This scandal took over the gaming world and brought loot boxes as a whole under question.

After this, many media outlets and gamers questioned the validity of loot boxes, as well whether it should strictly speaking be considering gambling. A report from the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) committee, declares that loot boxes are, “designed to exploit potent psychological mechanisms associated with […] gambling-like behaviours.”[3] The scariest part of that, is a survey by the Gambling Commission, “found that 31% of children aged 11-16 had paid for loot boxes.” [4]  This basically means that these systems can indeed be harming our children, because they are instilling this gambling-like-behaviours at such a young age. For a lot of places, loot boxes are not considered gambling though. In the UK for example, currently, “loot boxes aren’t considered a form of gambling as long as you can’t exchange the virtual goods you receive for real money”[5], however this is looking like changing very soon.

source: pcper

Places like Belgium have already completely banned games using loot boxes, with companies having to patch out the loot boxes in order to continue being played in the country. The response from gamers to Belgium’s ban, was overwhelmingly positive, with most gamers, tending to, “to see [loot boxes] as something dishonest, and something that can create a competitive advantage inside the game.”[6] Even if it’s merely cosmetic, there is still a certain psychological advantage players get when using loot boxes awarded items. In Fortnite for example, players tend to assume only new players do not have purchased cosmetics, with that peer pressure often leading people to fork out their own money to look like the better player.


So, are loot boxes gambling?

lootboxes and gambling

Well, still according to many countries in the world, no. However, that is changing., points out that video games are akin to gambling for four main reasons.

The first being, that “you pay money for an uncertain outcome”.  This refers to the mystery element behind the loot boxes, in that you fork out a certain amount, only for an unknown return.

The second, is that “they use a variable reward schedule.” This means that sometimes you will get a good return, and other times you won’t. Often, game will have their own system in place as well, that ensures after a certain about of lacklustre drops, you’ll get something good.

The third, is that, “they use near misses to keep you playing.” This refers to the way the in-game loot boxes are opened. It’s usually with an array of bright colours and fireworks, and often the colous used make you think perhaps you have unlocked a good item. This is demonstrated in the Overwatch loot boxes. In Overwatch, gold is the best level of item. As the loot box items are propelled into the air, a streak of gold accompanies them, even if the items are not gold themselves. This makes you think, “perhaps in the next one – I was so close this time” and you open more.

The final one taps into the last, in that the “bells and whistles” they use for the opening of the loot box associates the sound with winning. It’s also the same technique poker machines use to keep people playing. [7]

Despite this, formally in many places loot boxes are not considered gambling.

So, what does this mean for the future of loot boxes in games?

It is difficult to tell for the moment, as so many governments are still in discussion around it, but seeing the positive response to Belgium, it’s possible other countries might follow suit.  But it seems for the time being, we won’t be saying goodbye to the flashy in game loot boxes of temptation.











Appreciator of fantasy novels, RPG games, cats and good tea.

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