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Loot Boxes: Hidden Gambling Systems in Video Games

With EA’s latest video game, Star Wars Battlefront 2, in hot water over loot boxes, the trend of implementing the hidden gambling feature has increased this year alone.

GiantBomb has listed more than 50 AAA games that have loot boxes. Whether it’s a racing or shooting game, your favorite video games may include a variety of these types of micro-transactions. But what are loot boxes?

Video Games + Gambling = Loot Boxes

Loot boxes typically hold several in-game items that have some function in a game’s online multiplayer mode. Like a slot machine, players never know whether a loot box will hold a rare or common item. Usually, players can either choose to save up in-game currency to purchase them, or use real money to buy as many as they please.

Originating in mobile games, loot boxes in major video games releases have only recently taken hold of the market, and not without its few share of complaints. But the real question of the matter is:  Are they exploiting gamers, especially children, by using an unregulated and sometimes hidden gambling system?

Loot Box Legality

In the United States, the definition of gambling is based on three qualities. Staking something of value for a chance to win a prize. As such, having all three elements of consideration, chance, and prize is what defines gambling in the country.

Technically, one could argue that this is a way of defining loot boxes. Yet the difference between America and other countries on loot boxes is their regulation. Although the case against loot boxes has yet to be brought up in the States, the chances of that happening appear unlikely at the moment.

However, U.K. and Belgium authorities just recently brought loot boxes under a legal light. Meanwhile, China and Japan see the addictive nature of video games combined with mechanics like loot boxes as violations against consumers. They are creating laws that force companies to disclose probabilities of getting certain items in a game.

ESRB on Loot Box Defense

As promising as the claims against loot boxes are, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) gave a statement in the defense of this new way to play (and pay):

“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.”

Many critics were quick to call out the ESRB for their attitude towards loot boxes. Some believe that their defense is not valid or not looking closely at the issue.

Publishers like EA have also come forward, not seeing the inherent similarities of loot boxes and gambling.

Star Wars: Battlefront 2’s Loot Boxes “Are Not Gambling,” EA Says from Games

Addictive Gaming and Spending

The human mind has shown evidence of high dopamine levels as a result of gambling. The “high” that one feels when winning in casino games explains many of the withdrawal and addictive natures that stem from gambling in general.

“We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards,” said Dr. Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia.

“Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis,” Clark added.

BBC has released an article that contains an image associating Disney’s Star Wars with child-oriented gambling. from gaming

Games already show evidence of addictive properties. Adding an experience that could be inherently addictive only exploits gamers and especially children in purchasing unnecessary commodities in already costly $60 video games.

Companies like EA, Activision and Microsoft continue to capitalize on loot boxes. Plans for more lucrative systems in order to ensure players eventually buy them will persist. In short: if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Especially if there is still more money in it.

About Jarek Martinez

Born in Chicago, Illinois, a journalism major with plenty of hope for his future and career. Reporting and photography are improving every day, but writing is the passion. The drive. Avid movie watcher and media guy. Also minoring in legal studies and applying for paralegal certification. A big dog person as well.

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