Although the gameplay and story of The Council seem dreamy, the visuals are more of a nightmare says Gaming's Zak HughesWritten by Zak Hughes on 17th July 2018
‘Game-Bling’: Are Loot Boxes Turning Games Into Casinos?
Emma Kent provides a deep, thought-provoking feature on loot crates, and the argument that games are becoming casinos
If you've been on any gaming website in the last few weeks, you are sure to have come across the great microtransactions debate which has been raging online. For those of you out of the gaming loop, 'microtransactions' are small in-game purchases, which are increasingly being added to full-price games. Several games have been attracting a lot of heat for including microtransactions this year, including Forza 7, Middle Earth: Shadow of War and Star Wars Battlefront II.
In the last week, the debate has shifted over to a specific form of microtransaction, the 'loot box'. Loot boxes are essentially crates of random in-game items, which can be unlocked through paying real money (typically a couple of pounds). The million dollar question is this: are loot boxes a form of gambling?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, to gamble is defined as 'to do something that involves risks that might result in loss of money or failure, hoping to get money or achieve success.'
“I believe that loot boxes can be classed as light gambling
I think that this is a short-sighted and lazy response to a growing problem. I believe that loot boxes can be classed as light gambling, and that regulation is needed to protect consumers. To highlight some of the harmful practices that are currently used to push loot boxes, I have compared them with techniques used by casinos to encourage gambling.
How they get you to gamble: a comparison with casinos
There are a surprising number of parallels that can be drawn between the way loot boxes are marketed in video games and the tricks that casinos use to encourage people to gamble.
If you want to play poker at a casino, one of the first things you'll do is exchange your real-life, hard-earned cash for some plastic chips. The reason that casinos do this is because the chips create a mental separation between your fake and real money. This is increasingly the case in video games, where 'game' currencies essentially distort your perception of value and potentially trick you into spending more than you would like.
“'game' currencies essentially distort your perception of value
On top of these marketing techniques, the fact that you can buy silver chests for 'free' using non-premium currency echoes another casino technique: giving away freebies. Casinos frequently give out free spins, bets and rolls in order to get you hooked and spending your own money. Shadow of War essentially does the same thing by allowing you to buy silver chests with non-premium currency, giving you a taste for gambling that may lead you to spend money on premium chests.
After a few turns on a casino slot machine, you may be lucky enough to win a prize. When this happens, you are greeted with loud music, flashing lights and slogans congratulating you on your win. This makes you feel pretty damn good. Casinos make winning a spectacle in order to reward you and make you crave the possibility of winning again. In video games, you may have noticed that loot boxes similarly have their own sound effects, exciting animations and positive messages when they are opened. Indeed, they have become such a spectacle that loot box opening videos on YouTube have become quite popular (I'm looking at you, FIFA). The experience of opening a box and 'winning' can leave you craving the same feeling again, and willing to part with more cash to do so.
Finally, once you decide to leave a casino, you may find yourself constantly in the path of more gambling machines. This is because casinos are deliberately designed to tempt customers to gamble again - they do this by creating winding pathways through the building and by placing gambling machines in your way. I would argue that video games are starting to adopt techniques similar to this. Constant reminders and advertising about new loot boxes and items can be tempting for players. Many players have also expressed concern that they felt pushed into buying loot boxes towards the end of Shadow of War. They could either spend some money to quickly acquire the necessary high-level items, or commit to a long grind to earn them in-game. This is an example of placing temptation in a player's path: the game forces heavily invested players to either pay real money or engage in digital labour to earn the items, making the game feel more like work than play.
Still unconvinced about this point? Take a look at the patent that Activision have recently been granted. The patent describes an algorithm that matches junior players with heavily equipped expert players to frustrate the junior players into buying items. Although Activision have not yet used this algorithm in any of their games, the patent reveals their line of thinking; in the future, the game industry may try to push microtransactions through altering game-making systems. When combined with the gambling elements of loot boxes, this appears pretty toxic and unethical.
Just to make matters worse; this week, gameplay footage of the new Call of Duty: World War II emerged showing that loot boxes will literally 'rain from the sky' in its social space. Not only does this literally push loot boxes into the path of players, but by making the loot boxes and their contents visible to all, Activision is clearly trying to tempt players into buying them. For instance; if one person is lucky enough to win a rare item, the social buzz and excitement created by this could prompt other players into trying their luck. It creates an illusion that winning big is a possibility, even if only one player in a hundred ever wins a noteworthy item.
Despite many of the dubious practices that loot boxes share with casinos, loot boxes are completely unregulated and not classed as gambling by the UK Gambling Commission. In their response to the petition, they did admit that loot boxes have gambling elements. They also argued, however, that they cannot be classed as licensable gambling, because the items you receive can only be used in-game and not exchanged for money. In their opinion, it can only count as gambling when players can trade their items for cash via third party websites.
Frankly, I cannot agree with their assessment of the situation. It suggests that the game items have no real value, despite the fact you must use real money to buy them. Player communities also place social value on certain 'cool' items, which can encourage people to gamble repeatedly in the hope of getting the latest skin. On top of this, in games like Shadow of War, loot box items have value in that they save you time doing hours of 'digital labour' - which, for instance, you could use to earn money from a job.
“Psychologically, they will still want to gamble
Suggestions for future regulations
Despite the recent outrage online about the creeping presence of microtransactions and loot boxes in full price games, it would seem that sales have not been affected. As consumer choice seems to be failing to curb some of the exploitative practices involved in selling loot boxes, I believe that the UK Gambling Commission does need to revisit this issue. Even if the Commission does not wish to call loot boxes 'gambling' in a legal sense, the selling of loot boxes still needs scrutiny to protect consumers.
“the selling of loot boxes still needs scrutiny to protect consumers
If these measures were to be adopted, I believe that loot boxes would be less problematic in video games. At the very least, the game industry should be held somewhat accountable for how it pushes gambling. If they continue unchecked, I worry that 'gamebling' will only become more of an issue in the future.