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Taking the Gamble on Gambling

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unisplash

Everything after the separator is the opinion of this article’s author.

Loot boxes are one of the most effective ways video game publishers have found to rake in the cash. Juniper Research estimates that revenue from loot boxes will exceed $20 billion by 2025.

For the uninitiated, loot boxes are a chance-based mechanic found in video games. You buy game-specific currency with real-world money and use that in-game money to purchase loot boxes and sometimes, keys to open said loot boxes. Although game-specific, opening loot boxes promises the user a virtual reward such as characters or items. The kicker? Loot box rewards are never guaranteed. They are a treasure chest in the sense that you will never know what you’ll find inside.

Policy-makers argue that when players start buying loot boxes with real-life money, the activity begins to resemble gambling. Merriam Webster defines gambling as “the practice of risking money or other stakes in a game or bet,” and under that definition, you can see how policy-makers reached their conclusions. To make loot boxes less predatory, China, Japan, Belgium, and other countries either prohibit some loot boxes outright or force video game companies to clearly label their loot box mechanic as a form of gambling. 

Far beyond just a legal definition, the “game-ification” of casinos makes the connection between gambling and loot boxes shine even brighter. At a casino, gamblers exchange real-life money for chips to wager on the outcome of games. Similarly, players exchange real-life cash for a games’ currency and then bet on the contents of a loot box with that currency. Loot boxes resemble an electronic version of the cup-and-ball game, where the dealer hides a ball under one of three cups and moves the cups around. Painfully ironic considering that the word game has etymological connections to gambling, casinos have done an incredible job of transforming the gambling experience and creating a false sense of lowered stakes. While the efficacy of “gamifying” gambling is controversial, gamification tightens the connection between traditional gambling and loot boxes.

One crucial detail separates casinos and loot boxes. While casinos are restricted to those who are 21 and older, loot boxes are not. This is a crucial distinction, as age matters when it comes to gambling. Not only are underage people’s brains more malleable, but they’re also simply less able to fully understand or acknowledge the consequences of gambling (New York Council on Problem Gambling). Every person is different and the number of irresponsible adults runs high. But, underage people are at particularly high risk. Our brains don’t fully develop until we reach our early twenties, which shows that children and teens aren’t equipped to balance logic and emotions when making decisions. 

Loot boxes, on the other hand, are designed to be played by children. Puzzles and Dragons, a Chinese game with loot boxes at the core of its design, is marked as suitable for ages 6+. Star Wars Battlefront 2, the game that sparked the loot box controversy in Belgium, is labeled for ages 16+ by ESRB. However, ESRB only cites the violence found in the video game and never mentions the gambling aspect of loot boxes. Funnily enough, Common Sense Media rates the game as 13+ while parents on the site rate Star Wars Battlefront 2 as a 10+ game. 

In my eyes, the tendency for loot boxes to be so easily accessible to children poses a major risk factor in developing gambling addictions. Growing up with the idea of gambling so closely normalizes it and lowers any inhibitions you might have about it. Loot boxes send the cultural message that gambling is something that is just another form of entertainment, which can be enjoyed by children without any consequences. Making use of gambling in a medium that is easily accessible to children is predatory at its core. 

Yet, this is where I find the most issue with the scrutiny that loot boxes have been faced with in recent years. While I agree that loot boxes can pose serious problems to the youth and their wallets, I also find it disappointing that other forms of what I see as gambling, are not treated the same way. 

One prime example is Pokémon trading cards. Considering that there are plenty of video games that sell loot boxes in the form of card booster packs like Blizzard’s Hearthstone or Supercell’s Clash Royale, Pokémon starts to very strongly resemble an analog predecessor to these video games. The hypocrisy is that while society tends to view loot boxes as a predatory tactic to abuse children’s inability to make well-thought-out decisions consistently, MLB or Pokémon cards are seen as a staple of American childhood. 

Tell anyone you never grew up with Pokémon cards and instantly, you’ve never had a chance to experience childhood. Parents didn’t buy you MLB trading cards? You’ve been robbed of a “delicious slice of childhood pie.” The same mechanics and dubious morality found in loot boxes are for some reason being praised in these analog equivalents. 

Kinder Surprises, Lego Minifigures, those dinosaur eggs with promised hidden treasures that we bought once then never again–the toy market is flooded with surprise mechanics that make use of a gambler’s impulse just as much as any loot box does. If anything, these toys’ seemingly innocuous nature ought to be more of a red flag as they are explicitly designed for children. 

Morality is often filled with hypocrisy. Instead of tunneling in on loot boxes and the existential threat of video games, we ought to look at the bigger picture. Gambling addiction is as prevalent as ever, and if that problem is to ever be addressed the first step must be to acknowledge all gambling as unsafe for kids. 

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