Each time a term from the world of video games into the wider community, it’s certain that it’s not for a good reason. Loot boxes – like Hot Coffee or Gamergate – don’t buck this trend. For at least the last five years, fueled by a mix of grassroots Reddit organizing and parental horror stories—“my teenager spent £6,000 on FIFA cards”—these randomized prize draws have attracted the wrath of the world; in several countries they are now illegal. Last week, after 22 months of consultation, the UK government decided that loot boxes will not be regulated under betting laws. Despite finding a link between these systems and problem gambling, the government has left regulation to the industry.
The nuance has been lost in this discussion. It has never simply been a binary choice between prohibition — “the nuclear option,” says David Zendle, a professor of computer science at the University of York — and letting the industry run wild. This is “misdirection”, he says, and gives players the impression that they are at risk of losing their game. The precedent it sets is disappointing. It shuts down debate on regulation of any kind, leaving industry-friendly groups like the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) to pick up the slack. After all, loot boxes aren’t the only industry practice to be investigated. Widespread monetization is endemic.
Researchers track down the first loot boxes back to the Chinese free-to-play MMO ZT online, released in 2006, where players opened virtual treasure chests. This formula mutated through various mobile games until it reached core franchises: in 2010, Valve incorporated them into Team Fortress 2. Activision Blizzard’s success Overwatch and its rewards of color-coded rarity led to a number of major titles, including Activision’s Call of Duty: WW2 and Xboxes Gears of War 4, which also incorporates them. The exercise reached a nadir with Electronic Arts’ Star Wars: Battlefront 2in 2017, a “pay-to-win” system that caused outrage and saw Congressman Chris Lee of Hawaii label the game “a Star Wars themed online casino.” EA redesigned the system, but lost billions, and regulators began to notice: Belgium would ban loot boxes in 2018.
At the moment it is FIFA Ultimate Team with which most people would associate these systems. The odds of choosing e.g. a Prime Moments R9 card is ridiculously low (EA won’t tell us exactly how low). Converted from the in-game currency of FUT Coins, the card is worth thousands of dollars.
Whether a system like this (or more egregious examples; not all loot boxes are built the same) constitutes gambling or causes problem gambling is both a hot topic and a red herring: The bottom line is that loot boxes provide another option for vulnerable over to destroy their lives. The correlative evidence between loot box engagement and problem gambling is robust. The thin line between gambling and gambling is a burgeoning academic field. And the rush I felt as a kid when I pulled a shiny Venusaur from my booster pack is indistinguishable from the rush I feel as an adult when I win a hand of poker, or more equivalently, hit big at roulette.
All of this leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but it also suggests that predatory behavior can boil down to gambling. This is not the case. “Loot boxes are what a lot of people know about,” says Zendle. “However, at the same time that the loot box has existed, there have always been other cases of players reporting exploitation or coercion.” Even if Britain had banned loot boxes, explains James Close, a lecturer in clinical education at the University of Plymouth, it would have made very little difference. Fearing regulation, many game publishers have already moved on. Overwatch 2 won’t use loot boxes, and even EA, Close says, could change its business model with a little effort. Monetization has diversified (in some cases for the better, he says), but so has the predator.