Imagine a world where you invest real money into something that doesn’t exist. Imagine if your real estate agent sent you a listing for a mushroom house in the Smurf village. The idea of buying something you can’t actually hold sounds idiotic, right? Welcome to gaming in 2019. The controversial loot box system has been heavily debated, with opponents arguing loot boxes are an immersive and addictive technology that’s primarily targeted towards children. This is a hefty accusation to make, yet one with support from scientists and parents who feel the need for government intervention. But this begs the question, what is a loot box??
Loot boxes vary between games, but the concept remains the same. Each loot box contains a cluster of items that range from cosmetics, leveling boosters, special weapons, and anything else that can give the player an advantage over another. Each item is classified by a percentage with the most desired items receiving the lowest chance. The player purchases a “key” to the loot box with a credit card, and the items within are drawn at random. Usually at the cost of a buck, Mom and Dad probably won’t notice a couple keys added onto the credit card bill. As time goes on, the gambler’s choices grow more risky, inevitably charging tens, hundreds, or even thousands of dollars on in-game items. In layman’s terms, a loot box is really no different from a gumball machine. You put in money, you’re guaranteed candy. Only in this case, the candy is virtual, and the next sugar high is just a click away.
The origin of the loot box began with free-to-play games back in the early 2000s. Free-to-play games are just that—free, so in order to bring in more revenue, developers had the idea to offer gamers time-saving shortcuts for a small fee. At virtually no extra cost for the developers to code, the loot box proved to be the greatest money-making shortcut of all. The success of the loot box caused nearly all free-to-play games to offer their own adaption, which then led to the first paid game to offer loot boxes in 2010’s Team Fortress 2. This meant that in addition to buying the game, you are now encouraged to invest even more money in customizing and further advancing your virtual character. In a game where everyone’s character starts out the same, there’s a competitive advantage to be the best and coolest looking.
Gamers tend to see it as something dishonest and something that can create a competitive advantage inside the game.
Today, the loot box system generates billions of dollars a year for gaming companies, proving to be one of their most successful revenue streams. The presentation of opening a box has evolved from being like opening a Christmas present, to pulling the lever on a Las Vegas slot machine. The flashing lights tease gamer’s with the possibility of getting the highest quality item, only to have it land on the worst. This is done intentionally to lure the gamer back for more, just like gamblers who can’t leave the table. This is most troubling when much of the gaming player base is made up of children under the age of eighteen. Hawaiian Congressman Chris Lee has criticized gaming developers for their “predatory practices” regarding the loot box, more specifically Electronic Arts, and the use of these practices in their game Battlefront II. Lee calls it a “Star Wars–themed online casino, designed to lure kids into spending money.”
The troubling nature of how this lures minors has brought unwanted attention to loot boxes. Several countries have either implemented or are considering bans on the controversial loot box. The first country to successfully eliminate loot boxes was Belgium which won praise from parents and gamers. Belgium gaming journalist Ronald Meeus stated, “Gamers tend to see it as something dishonest and something that can create a competitive advantage inside the game.” In contrast, Electronic Arts called microtransactions a way to “provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.” Readers didn’t buy this defense and the post became the most downvoted in the site’s history.
The United Kingdom Parliament is considering a ban on loot boxes, at least until evidence proves they aren’t harmful or addictive for children. Dr. David Zendle from the University of York said, “It is not that it is a gateway [to problem gambling]; it is that it is a way that video game companies may, accidentally or incidentally, be profiting from problem gambling among their consumers.” Dr. Zendle’s study, published in March of this year, focused on teenagers and how they are more vulnerable to developing problem gambling habits from loot box play than adults. For example, a 2018 Gambling Commission Survey found that 31 percent of eleven to sixteen-year-olds have paid money or used in-game items to open loot boxes.
This mounting problem and uproar among worried parents has encouraged United States Government action. There is currently a bipartisan bill written by Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and supported by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called the Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act. It’s aimed at stopping randomized loot boxes and pay-to-win mechanics in the game industry. “Congress must send a clear warning to app developers and tech companies: Children are not cash cows to exploit for profit,” Senator Blumenthal said.
Inversely, gaming companies have been pushing back so that loot boxes can continue to be a part of gaming for years to come. When questioned on the bill, Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick didn’t seem phased at all, explaining that “it’s this little thing called the First Amendment, that thing that allows you to ply your trade and allows us to ply ours.” What’s important to remember here is the relationship between video games and the First Amendment. For years, violent video games have been accused as one possible cause for mass shootings, but the Supreme Court ruled that video games are protected speech. With that in mind, gaming companies hold an air of arrogance and superiority, like they’re untouchable. If there were ever something to take down video games and their free speech, it’s this.
The fate of loot boxes sits in limbo. The threat of losing loot boxes has made some gaming companies scramble to make a change before one is made for them. Activision’s Call of Duty and Psyonix’s Rocket League are two games that have begun phasing out loot boxes for a less randomized loot system, where players know what they are going to get. On the other hand, some companies have remained defiant making no changes to their loot boxes. Blizzard’s Overwatch and Electronic Arts’ FIFA continue going strong in their pursuit of an easy dollar. Betting which way this bill will go in the U.S. Congress?
That’s the true gamble.
Kyle Waurishuk is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Photo Credit: Nate Barret/Digital Trends
Featured Image Credit: https://gph.is/2p5aGCT
Photo credit: Overwatch Loot Box: Blizzard–forbes.com