As loot boxes take over gaming, it’s time to ban predatory microtransactions
Historically, unlockables were handled through completing in-game objectives, using cheat codes or earning in-game units of currency and purchasing items from a storefront in the game’s menu.
Today, loot boxes are how many games handle unlockables. Loot boxes are essentially blind item packs. Gamers can earn access to them — usually through leveling up, general progression, or by spending real money on in-game credits — and open them to unlock a random item.
Usually, these items are cosmetic — things like clothes or parts for a vehicle — but oftentimes, they are boosts, mods or other in-game items that help a player’s performance in online or offline game modes.
The appeal is the mystery aspect of them because it creates a rush of not knowing what item you’re going to get. Loot boxes even come complete with flashing lights, loud noises, exciting music and anxiety-inducing animations when unlocking one.
With the opening of each box, a player gains access to more items. In many cases, the items begin to repeat eventually and then it becomes a game of trying to hunt down those last few elusive shirts, hats or menu backgrounds.
The flashiness of it is not unlike gambling and the hunt for the rare items is not unlike collecting physical or digital items in other forms.
It’s a rush and it’s, admittedly, a lot of fun to open them. There’s always a draw to get just one more item for your collection. Most games have so much stuff to unlock, that it would take far longer to complete the list than players tend to spend on a given game.
And the real money cost to unlock everything in some games is just downright laughably ridiculous. Recent reports showed that to unlock everything in Mortal Kombat 11, it would take upwards of 3,400 hours and over $6,000.
The addictive and predatory nature of it all is why many countries are looking into how to define loot boxes and whether or not they should be classified as gambling.
The answer to that question depends on your definition of gambling.
Meriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “gamble” to mean “to play a game for money or property.” But it also defines it as, “to bet on an uncertain outcome.”
Are we playing for money? No. Are we betting on an uncertain outcome? The outcome is uncertain, but most games don’t have an aspect of betting. Though some games do allow loot boxes to award the player with more credits or more loot boxes.
However, there is another definition listed by Meriam-Webster that boils down to taking a chance. I’m not sure anyone can argue against that definition applying to loot boxes.
It’s definitely a game of chance and it keeps players wanting more by dangling the best items just out of reach.
In fact, games like Forza Horizon 4 take this one step further by blacking out other cars on the screen, for example, so you can just make out which car is in your future. If you don’t land on it, it’s encouraging to know you may get that awesome ride by just trying once more. This is very similar to how slot machines work, awarding players with small wins every so often to keep them playing.
But is there really anything wrong with loot boxes?
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) thinks so and has introduced a bill — one that has support from both Democrats and Republicans, a rare feat in Washington — that would ban the sale of loot boxes to minors.
It was introduced after the Federal Trade Commission said it would investigate the issue of loot boxes in response to a letter written by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) in late 2018.
According to The Verge, Hawley’s “Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act (PCAGA)” will, if enacted, “prohibit video game companies from selling loot boxes to children under the age of 18 and make it unlawful for minor-oriented games to include pay-to-win mechanics. If a games company was found to be unlawfully including these features in games targeted to minors it would be financially penalized.”
Though aimed at children, this could have an impact on all games, because, let’s face it, I think we all know children who have played games like Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat, despite those games having Mature ratings from the ESRB.
As quoted by a recent Kotaku article, Hawley justified the introduction of the bill in a press release by saying, “When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn’t be allowed to monetize addiction. And when kids play games designed for adults, they should be walled off from compulsive microtransactions. Game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences.”
Children simply must be protected from this type of predatory corporate greed.
Not only could loot boxes lead to other forms of gambling addiction, but game companies stand to make a ton of money from this predatory behavior — and many have already made stacks of cash from the practice.
In fact, companies could bring in an estimated $50 billion on loot box microtransactions and skin gambling (using cosmetic in-game items to bet on the outcome of matches between other players online) annually by 2022, according to a report by Juniper Research, as reported by MCV, a United Kingdom media company.
But what about games that train kids to use loot boxes? I recently played The LEGO Movie 2 Videogame with my wife because she’s not a gamer and the LEGO games are among the few games she’ll actually play with me. Plus, we just love this series.
However, we were quite disturbed that the unlockables in the game were obtained through what are essentially loot boxes.
Now, these loot boxes don’t cost real money to unlock, but I feel this is something that could lead younger gamers to becoming addicted to the rush of unlocking items through a randomized and purposely exaggerated method. I’m in my 30s and found it to be quite addicting. And I would say I’m someone who doesn’t get easily addicted to much of anything.
With the World Health Organization recently classifying video gaming as an addictive activity, it’s time to make sure kids are kept safe from being taken for their milk money.
This doesn’t even scratch the service of the issue that loot boxes are becoming more and more prominent and it’s creating repetitive, lazy reward systems that are mere shadows of the former objectives and tasks we used to have to complete to obtain new items in our games.
After years of gamers complaining about having to pay for DLC to essentially unlock more content in games, I do applaud the gaming industry for trying something new. But if many of these games are charging real money to unlock the loot boxes, and developers are creating other issues like pay-to-win situations where gamers can buy items through loot boxes that give unfair advantages in multiplayer modes, is it really worth it?
I think not.
And that’s why I support Hawley’s bill and think you should too. To reiterate, it’s important to protect our children from predatory practices by large, powerful corporations.
It’s even more important to remind ourselves that “large and powerful” is exactly what the game publishers that are most guilty of such behaviors, such as EA, Epic Games, Activision, Ubisoft, Warner Bros. and others, have become.
The scariest part is that, for many in the industry, gaming is now about making as much money as possible and there is very little focus on actually creating fun, fulfilling experiences.
It worries me, not only for the future of our children, but for the future of gaming. With “games as a service” rumored to be on the horizon from the big companies like Microsoft and Sony, I question whether this is really what we want to see happen to our beloved hobby.
To read Hawley’s full bill, go here. Note that it’s still in the early stages.