What to Look for in Games with Loot Boxes

Despite the popularity of those game modes that encourage extra spending within triple-A titles such as that of EA Sports’ Ultimate Team, many players dislike the mechanics of the loot boxes deployed. After increasing scrutiny from regulatory bodies outside of the gaming industry, and having discussed the topic with a large sample of gamers, the UK’s DCMS committee concluded that the government should rule loot boxes under the Gambling Act 2005 that governs all gambling activity in the country.

It follows the revelations made in other countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, and China, according to The Guardian, which have either classified loot boxes as a form of gambling or have restricted the practice significantly. Across most of the world, loot boxes deployed by the gaming industry go unregulated, unchecked, and without limits despite them brazenly advertising very specific gambling mechanics to hook players.

Gambling, but without the limitations

Gambling is an activity that many adults partake in for entertainment purposes. However, the industry has been able to identify that people can develop addiction problems and overspend on such games, and they also sought to address this. Accordingly, reputable online casino websites have become very strict in their responsible gambling policies as well as support to players when it comes to this and other issues. For instance, Karamba casino offers a support team and allows players to implement self-exclusion programs, set deposit caps, cut off excluded players from marketing, and gain easy access to their betting history. All of this aligns with the UK’s Gambling Commission rules on trying to stop gamblers who have or feel they could have addiction problems and risk spending excessive sums on the games they prefer.

In 2018, it was found that the loot box market was worth $30 billion worldwide, which indicates the sheer amount of people who pay money into the video gaming industry’s gambling-style mechanics. Simply googling “loot boxes” will reveal a plethora of horror stories of people spending hundreds and thousands on these virtual items, without even realizing how much they’ve spent. This is a classic sign of addictive behavior. And, in this case, unlike in the actual gambling industry, the traditional video gaming industry does not enforce any cap or block – or even awareness campaign – to assist those showing these behaviors. Looking closer at the mechanics of loot boxes, it’s clear to see how people fall into these gambling addict-type tendencies.

How the game industry incentivizes its gambling mechanics

The issue with problem gambling is that people don’t recognize the impact that playing games of chance has on their brains. The uncertainty of the reward is what makes gambling attractive, per Promises Behavioral Health, as the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in such situations. The brain secretes dopamine during enjoyable activities. The anticipation effectively creates a “high” of excitement and enjoyment before the resulting reward is revealed, with repeated exposure to the activity potentially leading to individuals also experiencing this rush when losing in the same way that they do when winning.

Anyone who has experienced loot boxes first-hand, seen their friends gamble on loot boxes, or watched those publisher-funded pack opening videos online will recognize these stimulations. In gambling, the uncertainty revolves around the monetary size of the potential prize, whereas in many loot boxes, the prize is a real-life sports idol, popular movie character, or game-enhancing item that makes the player better in the game. Not knowing which of the many items available the player may get greatly enhances the appeal. Publishers recognize this and aren’t shy about showing off the gambling mechanics because supposed regulatory bodies do nothing in riposte.

As seen above, the trailer for one of NBA 2K20’s game mode brazenly showcased gambling elements akin to slot machines, rewards available, and flashing lights. But they went much further to encourage people to play these gambling games by showing the excitement in anticipation of reward reveals by two players – one of which is a popular YouTube video creator. The ESRB – the American self-regulatory organization which provides age ratings – didn’t consider these games to be either real or simulated gambling. Under its regulations, simulated gambling occurs “if a player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency.”

Due to the gaming industry being unwilling to regulate the blatant gambling mechanics in games, publishers and developers are free to be as obvious and underhanded in offering loot boxes as they wish. Their implementations mean that people who want to play what are often the best online game modes have to pay into loot boxes in order to compete. Gamers are encouraged across the board to pay as much as possible into these mini-games of chance – which is fine, but the industry is generally reluctant to accept responsibility to player wellbeing, ignoring the fact that using these mechanics can lead to addiction problems for gamers.

Despite the deployment, advertisement, and encouragement of video game fans to pay real money to engage in gambling mechanics on the part of developers and publishers, the gaming industry doesn’t abide by the standards set by the gambling industry. There aren’t caps, limits, support teams, or red flags for those who spend huge sums of money on loot boxes. If the gaming industry wants to continue to offer such mechanics, it will have to get in line with the regulations of gambling bodies to protect players.

For now, unfortunately, it’s up to players to recognize whether their approach to gambling mechanics such as loot boxes is problematic and realize whether they are suffering from the symptoms of addiction caused by such mechanics within popular, often mainstream, video games.


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