June 2, 2023

Recently, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) shared its opinion on whether or not loot boxes were gambling. In short, they said “No.” More comprehensively, they said:

“ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling. While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.”

On its face, the argument makes sense. You’re definitely guaranteed to get something. There’s a chance you may not get what you want. Okay. I get that. They’re still wrong.

TCG’s vs. Video Games

The ESRB brings up an interesting analogy using trading card games. If you are a player of either or both, you will immediately understand why the analogy fails. In a TCG, your entry fee is more often than not a single starter deck. That’s a full collection of cards that you can keep playing with, no additional purchase required. The same applies to a lot of video games, even though many are rapidly decaying into games that serve as full blown marketplaces for randomized microtransactions. The difference is, a TCG has no front menu with icons and splash screens telling you to buy more. TCG’s don’t hold your content hostage to your pockets, only allowing you to scrap your cards for a pathetic amount of currency. Video games engage in both horrid practices and the publishers who make a profit from loot boxes do so without any bit of shame.

But They’re Only Cosmetic!

If I had a dime for every time I heard someone dredge up this phrase from the pit of dead horses, I could buy as many loot boxes as my heart desired. It is true that games such as Overwatch and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds only offer cosmetic items and as a bonus, they can be earned in game. They argument, to many, is bolstered by the fact that cosmetic items don’t affect gameplay. Nonsense.

Everything in a game affects gameplay. How many games could one count that were ruined by a particular mechanical or visual flaw? What about terrible voice acting or animation? It is not the simple mechanics of a game that define “gameplay” but the combination of an entire work’s elements.

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, plays a massive role in the market. It is the major driving force behind the purchase of cosmetic or luxury items. Ever wonder why people stand in lines to purchase the new iPhone? FOMO is it. Humans are social creatures and as such, we have a social hierarchy. Having the biggest and best toys makes us the envy of everyone else in our community. Cosmetic microtransacations work off the same principle, especially those based on a rarity system. This is why people stand in line for iPhones, and this is why people buy cosmetic loot boxes.

The Point

Imagine a slot machine but one that’s been rigged to guarantee a win, dispensing at least one token every spin, but it costs 5 tokens to play and you start with 6. You drop in 5 tokens, pull the lever, and for the first spin you get 7. Good so far, you’ll try again. On the next spin, you get 3 tokens. You notice now that you’ve got only the 5 you started with. You spin once more, lose, and one measly token falls from the machine. Now you’ve got two options. Walk away with a single worthless token, or purchase at least 4 more in hopes of getting a better result.

Some will happily walk way, thinking, “no big deal.” Enough will keep buying tokens, driving that marketplace and making it more profitable for the casino. It gets even worse if you’ve got 4 tokens left after a loss as you’ll probably think, “I’ve only got to buy one more to try again.” This is gambling, pure and simple, and loot boxes often function in the same manner.

Games such as Destiny 2  and Overwatch either allow you to scrap duplicate items into in game currency you can use to purchase specific items. This isn’t terrible, but often the return on investment is so low that it requires you grind or spend some money to get that one thing you want that you didn’t get. You get that, “just one more”, feeling pushing you to spend a little extra, hoping it’ll be enough to win big. Other games don’t even throw you a bone, and you’re either stuck with things you don’t want or you’re tossing them just to clear up space.

Let’s be clear. No one has to buy loot boxes or other microtransactions. I understand that. No one has to walk into a casino. That doesn’t mean these industries and products don’t constantly entice you with the hope of reward. That doesn’t mean you aren’t, in purchasing loot boxes, going through the same motions as you would on a slot machine. Loot boxes are gambles, and hopefully, the industry will recognize that and change for the better.