Casino Watch Focus has reported on a potential new gambling medium that is proving to be exceptionally lucrative to video game companies, and even more exploitative of its customers, often times children. Known as loot boxes, they are purchasable boxes that are opened to receive an in-game prize. It’s a bit of a gamble as to what item will come out and players are becoming addicted to chasing after the more desirable loot.
Typically, the video game model either allows for a game to be played for free, but then requires micro transactions or loot boxes to speed up the game or provide the items needed to advance, a scheme known as pay to win. Gamers have generally accepted this practice because they aren’t required to pay for the game. Those transactions are typically optional and if not, many gamers don’t mind paying given the game was free. The other model used is that a video game company charges full price for a game, typically $60, and all the content of the game is accessible to the player. However, EA, the studio with rights to Disney’s Star Wars license, has created a model that screams of greed, as you are required to pay full price for the game, and yet you still need to spend extra money to unlock the games content and to remain competitive against other online players. Gamers have pushed back, thrusting the issue of gambling and loot boxes into mainstream media. In their game, Battlefront II, players pay full price for the game, but can’t progress or unlock characters without getting items from loot boxes. The Washington Post explains:
Imagine buying a new chess set. Chess is your favorite game. Also you love “Star Wars.” It’s a Star Wars chess set! Now imagine playing your friend who spent $200 for the random chance that his pawns obtain the board-clearing powers of a queen. Plus his king looks like Darth Vader and yours still looks like a scruffy-looking nerf herder. You might get mad. Or you might up the ante and spend a few hundred bucks to even the odds. Now imagine that you’re both children.
Loot boxes have become increasingly normal in recent years, included in games like the popular shooter “Overwatch” as well as the recent “Call of Duty” game. Publishers claim that because development costs of top games rival Hollywood summer blockbusters, selling post-release digital content is needed to make up costs.
But with “Star Wars,” creating a random loot economy raised flags because some consider the practice akin to gambling, and the brand is marketed heavily toward children. Beyond that, most other competitive games do not offer “pay to win” advantages, which imbalances the game to favor paying players.
EA says loot boxes are not a requirement and that in-game play will result in the same unlocked characters or upgrades needed to be successful. However, one Redditor did the math and to unlock all the content you would need to play the game for months on end (40 hours to unlock just Luke Skywalker for example) , or you would need to spend around $2100 in loot boxes to achieve the goal quicker, which was clearly EA’s goal. EA then adjusted the amount of time needed to unlock the content by a considerable amount, but still left in the loot boxes, thus still allowing players to pay their way into a competitive advantage. This caused even more backlash and has cause many who weren’t otherwise paying attention, to examine gambling’s role in loot boxes. As the Washington Post points out, the outcry and links to gambling were so bad, government organization are now taking note, including Belgium’s gaming commission. This lead Disney to reach out to EA as they obviously don’t want child gambling issues being linked to their Star Wars franchise. Unfortunately, EA is seemingly only temporarily removing the loot boxes. Truthfully, this is likely due to the fact that sales for the game have plummeted, seeing half as many games sold as the first Battlefield, and they need to at least get the initial copies sold. Most gamers believe they will reintroduce the loot boxes later, but Disney is at least supporting this temporary measure. The Washington Post continues:
Weeks of public outcry culminated in the game’s publisher, EA, taking to Reddit to defend itself on the controversy. That comment became the most downvoted (or disliked) post in the site’s 12-year history.
On Thursday, Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of Disney’s consumer products and interactive media division, made a call to EA hours before the decision was made to pull in-game purchases. The Wall Street Journal reported that the call was to express Disney executives’ unhappiness at how the outrage “reflected on their marquee property.” And a Disney/Lucasfilm spokesman said the company supports EA’s temporary decision to end the crate-purchasing.
Even thought gamers’ outrage about EA’s greed on social media and sites like Reddit that is largely responsible for this newfound focus on loot boxes in the gaming industry stemmed from unbalanced play and corporate greed, the gambling issue is still very much at the forefront. Many have long recognized their gambling nature and other governments have already sought regulation. The Post concludes:
For years, critics and gaming psychologists have criticized loot boxes. While it may not legally be gambling, they say, the same intermittent nature of rewards and spending is in place. “If you put it in fundamental terms, it’s really the same thing,” said Kimberly Young, a licensed psychologist and founder of the Center for Internet Addiction. “It’s called gambling.”
Loot boxes were popularized in China and Korea, where the practice is now regulated. Just this year, developers in China became required to disclose the probabilities of loot boxes in popular games like “Overwatch” and “Hearthstone.” In 2012, South Korea introduced a law that would require major gaming companies to add features that let parents limit how long their children can play the video games. “Americans are falling so far behind what other countries are doing, and it’s all about profit,” Young said. “You have gaming lobbyists who don’t want us to talk about this. We just haven’t had it come to a head yet.”
A Call to Action:
Hawaii’s government has decided to look into loot boxes’ predatory, gambling nature as well, and they were probably the most vocal and direct with how dangerous this practice can be for children calling the game “a Star Wars themed, online casino designed to lure kids into spending money.” Kotaku, a popular video game publication, provides the video press conference and written comments made by Hawaiian legislator Rep. Chris Lee about how you can help, beyond the obvious boycott of EA’s Battlefront II:
While we are stepping up to act in Hawaii, we have also been in discussions with our counterparts in a number of other states who are also considering how to address this issue. Change is difficult at the federal level, but states can and are taking action.
Even so, elected officials can’t do it alone. They need your support and you can compel action wherever you live by calling and emailing your own state legislators and asking them to act. But don’t stop there. Call your allies. Call your pastors and teachers and community leaders. Ask them to call your state legislators as well. Their voices are politically powerful.
These kinds of lootboxes and microtransactions are explicitly designed to prey upon and exploit human psychology in the same way casino games are so designed. This is especially true for young adults who child psychologists and other experts explain are particularly vulnerable. These exploitive mechanisms and the deceptive marketing promoting them have no place in games being marketed to minors, and perhaps no place in games at all.
For more information on the dangers of gambling, please visit CASINO WATCH & CASINO WATCH FOUNDATION