We are currently facing an epidemic in the video game industry: loot boxes. It has been with us for a long time, with no action being taken. Loot boxes are in-game crates containing random perks that are either cosmetic (colour of a weapon, clothes for a character, a dance or emoticon, etc.) or gameplay changing (a new character or a new card). The problem is that the “loot” from it is random. The player does not know what is in it.
A number of studies have linked the brain’s reaction to opening a loot box to gambling, suggesting that it becomes a gateway for further gambling issues, with concerns over seeing a rapid growth of loot boxes all over the gaming industry. However, all of these papers look at it from a distance: loot boxes are not solely an issue of gaming addicts, but an issue of the whole industry.
Loot boxes do not only exist in the realm of video games. Think of baseball cards, Magic: The Gathering, or Mystery Funko Pops, where buying a sealed item contained a chance of acquiring something rare – and expensive in the sub-culture – that could be played with or collected. However (or at least in my eyes), I do not see buying a physical pack of Magic cards as a problem, because of the trading aspect: if I get a card my friend wants and he has a card I want, we can exchange them. Additionally, I do see a difference between buying a cosmetic change such as a character skin and a loot box containing a gameplay changing loot such as a weapon, a better hero, or better cards.
The problem appears when a game containing a ranked ladder in an online multi-player environment gets people to buy loot boxes to progress
I view buying a skin for a character – for example for your favourite hero in League of Legends, on your character in Fortnite, or a troop in Starcraft – a one-time pay. The skin does not change the power of the character you play. It is the latter category of loot that raises concerns.
This text calls for another specification (and I promise it is the last one). I am also not talking about village building strategy games such as Clash of Clans, Simpsons Tapped Out or Travian, that require players to wait for structures to be built or pay money to skip it. These “freemium” games are critiqued, in my eyes very well, in an episode of South Park titled ‘Freemium Isn’t Free‘.
The problem appears when a game containing a ranked ladder in an online multi-player environment gets people to buy loot boxes to progress. And here I am talking from personal experience, as I have played many games that fit this category: from FIFA and Clash Royale to card games such as Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering Arena. Out of the four, it is only the first that requires buying the game to play it, but all of them contain an aspect of a helping hand. A helping hand that comes with a price-tag.
Of course, there are people who can reach the highest ranks with free-to-play accounts. One of them, who does it in Hearthstone, is an ex pro-player named Trump, who streams his “f2p” series. Free-to-play games are playable without the use of a credit card, but they require hours and hours of grinding. All of these games are a matter of skill which, and I am honest about it, I do not possess. I would say my gaming abilities are average – I would not be the worst person at a house party, but you would definitely not see me win a tournament.
Let’s consider a hypothetical situation: I start playing an online card game.
After the easy tutorial matches and early ranks the game becomes a game of chess, where my opponent has queens instead of bishops. It is beatable, but way harder.
YouTube grants you hundreds upon hundreds of videos where teens and young adults scream at a camera when they obtain a rare FIFA player after spending thousands of pounds
After getting beaten like an amateur boxer fighting Tyson Fury, with my dopamine levels reaching a low, I have two options: play again and hope to find someone with a similar deck to mine or go to the shop window and fill up my cart with booster packs. After choosing the former, I get beaten again. Different deck, different cards, same outcome. The “shop” tab has an even stronger lure.
Choosing the latter means progressing with ease, beating those who have not spent any money. Those players will be put in the same situation: the dopamine high lets me move towards new ranks until it becomes a game of skill again, where I, expectedly, start losing. My combination cannot get any better, all my cards copied from internet sites claiming the “best” and most “meta” decks, until a new season comes out and I am asked to buy packs containing better cards. And this goes on in an infinite loop.
But the problem is not me. I am an adult, and I am responsible for all good or bad financial decisions I make in my life. I am talking about children here, but not only those that make the headlines by spending insane amounts of money on online games. Only buying a couple of packs a month can, in the long run, be devastating: the free-to-play card game Hearthstone gained, according to SuperData, 20 million dollars a month in 2015. It would be ridiculous to think that all the money came from those who spent their entire lifesavings on it.
Content creators are also not helping with this. Just writing “pack opening” on YouTube grants you hundreds upon hundreds of videos where teens and young adults scream at a camera when they obtain a rare FIFA player after spending thousands of pounds. For them it is this content that gets them their money back, and I do not blame them. However, they need to understand that children watching behind their computer screens will go and try the same thing with their parent’s credit cards. The data from the Gambling Commission states that almost a quarter of English and Scottish children aged 11-16 has paid for a loot box. And I do not think that the number of boxes stopped on one.
This is an epidemic, but I am not proposing any ideas of how to solve this. Whether following the route that Belgium took in 2018 of making loot boxes illegal, or aiming to make the recommendations by scholars from the University of Newcastle and the University of Loughborough a reality, it is a matter of discussion. The UK government called for evidence in 2022, but as their report states, no changes to the Gambling Act have been made.
We can only hope that the drop-rate of change will not be as low as that of a legendary weapon.