Loot Boxes: Gambling or just gaming?

  
Where do you stand on the Loot Box debate? If you've never heard of loot boxes before check out the excerpt below from the ISTE Games and Sims Virtual Educator Week post on Nov 27th.

In game design, loot boxes are an example of a randomized reinforcement. A player opens up an object, usually a chest or box and receives an in-game reward. The actual reward received usually is based on a randomization schedule. Psychologically, it creates anticipation in the player, followed by a release when the loot box is opened.

Here’s why discussion of loot boxes is currently showing up in the mainstream news:

LOOT BOXES

Loot Boxes are currently becoming quite the divisive issue in the world of gaming and in state and governmental legislatures as well. While common in Asian games, they are making inroads into US gaming. Loot boxes offer developers of games (mobile, online, and console) a way to collect revenue beyond the initial sell point. They are also responsible for most of the monetization of free to play and freemium games.

First you might be asking yourself, “what is a loot box?” A loot box is a relatively new mechanic in digital games, but had its origins in mobile gaming. In it’s simplest form, it is a box with loot in it. The loot can be pets, cards, bonuses, weapons, clothes, or even avatar skins. The contents of the box can either be guaranteed or random, but is commonly a mix of both where you get one item guaranteed and the rest are random. Loot box some in several flavors: in game, require a purchased key, or purchasable online. In game loot boxes simply drop as a part of game play and players can open them or have some in game mechanism that allows them to be opened. Purchased key loot boxes, typically will drop in game but require the player to purchase a key using real money to be able to unlock the box. Purchasable online loot boxes allow the player to purchase the loot box with real money and may also require the purchase of a key with real money as well.

The next question is why are they divisive? Simply put loot boxes become divisive when their contents allow players to gain equipment that is higher than anything else in the game or when it allows the player to bypass the normal game mechanics (i.e. grinding) needed to obtain an item of equivalent level and power. Due to the randomization, loot boxes have the potential to provide improvements in gear or other status items that some players (i.e. those not buying loot boxes) have to spend a lot of time or resources to obtain without loot boxes. This is especially true when some games have high end items that only drop from loot boxes. This puts the casual gamer at odds with the serious heavy user in each game. This conflict occurs with any item that might drop from a loot box that could be considered a status reward or would only drop from a very difficult quest or boss.

So now we are on to why are legislators getting involved in loot boxes. The answer is gambling and how each state and country does or does not define gambling. By their nature, loot box contents are not determined by skill. They are determined by chance / probability. This puts them in a gray area as gambling this typically defined by games of chance, you pay money for the chance to gain a benefit monetary or otherwise. So, since a lot of games are now including purchasable loot boxes or requiring the players to pay real money to buy keys to unlock their loot boxes, you now have an environment where the players are paying real funds for the chance to receive digital goods that might significantly benefit they and enhance their success in the game. This issue has caused many countries and some US States to start legislating loot boxes as gambling,which is typically illegal in the US.

If you are interested in learning more, check out the following links:

State legislators call EA’s game a 'Star Wars-themed online casino' preying on kids, vow action.

https://www.polygon.com/2017/11/22/16690182/battlefront-2-loot-crates-hawaii-belgium-banned-regulation-investigate

https://www.pcinvasion.com/eas-terrible-horrible-no-good-bad-week

https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/310235/Hawaiian_representative_wants_to_clamp_down_on_predatory_loot_boxes.php

Belgium https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/310188/Belgian_officials_say_theyd_like_lootboxes_banned_but_investigation_continues.php

EA pulls back loot system from Star Wars Battlefront II
https://www.techsourceint.com/news/ea-pulls-back-loot-box-system-from-star-wars-battlefront-ii

Battle Front 2 https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/309739/Battlefront_II_dev_Its_up_to_us_to_make_sure_that_grind_is_fun_and_not_overwhelming.php

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