Loot boxes – Whats the big deal?
If you have ever been a gamer then you’re probably familiar with the terms “loot boxes”; a crate containing a random item that you pay real life money for. In essence, many see it as a form of soft gambling aimed at a younger audience which many fear could lead to children and teenagers picking up the habit later in life.
Loot boxes are not a new concept in games, with the earliest known forms being around back in the early 2010’s, being firstly introduced in Japanese mobile games and then rearing their ugly head in more mainstream video game titles such as “Call of Duty” and “FIFA”. In 2019 alone, the publisher of Call of Duty known as “Activision” made a jaw dropping $1 Billion from micro transactions alone.
So from what we have seen above, there are less incentives for developers of new games to care about the overall quality of their product like they used to, when they can simply put out the same mediocre game year after year, (looking at you EA) then add micro transactions with a few new upgrades, only available in packs/crates to get people to waste their hard earned money on a few colourful pixels.
The games in which these practices are being used are aimed at a range of target audiences from ages 3-18+ from simple kids games such as “Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare”, to gruesomely graphic, strictly adult games such as “Call of Duty”, it is clear the loot-boxes aren’t just aimed at one specific audience, but a variety of audiences just to make money. These upgrades are not just cosmetic upgrades or other types of character customisation, sometimes games offer players an advantage over other players with new weapons or playable characters that are only available in loot boxes.
An example of a loot crate from the game Call of Duty: Warzone, depicting weapons and skins only obtainable in crates.
Practices like this are what many gamers, including myself, have come to hate from big corporations who impose this toxic way of making a quick cash in.
EA games (electronic arts) tried to argue their point that video game loot boxes were not a form of gambling, with their vice president Kerry Hopkins stating:
Loot boxes aren’t gambling, they’re just like a Kinder Egg
This controversial line brought with it a lot of uproar with gamer’s, especially Ryan Brown, a video games journalist and PR. He said in an interview with BBC Radio 1:
When you speak to any gamer, even gamers who do buy those games and do buy into those loot boxes, none of them are happy with it,” he tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.
As well as stating what a lot of gamers thoughts are on the matter, he then said in response to the part about kinder eggs “You open a Kinder Egg and you expect a toy – and you get a toy. With a loot box, you’re hoping for something special.”
This best sums up how completely out of touch the vice president of EA is and how little the companies of todays gaming industry understand what the consumer wants.
As it stands, loot boxes are still legal in the UK online marketplace, however there are calls by many gamers to follow a Belgian style approach in banning all forms of online loot boxes with a fine of up to £697,000 and 5 years in prison for those caught.
The “UK Parliamentary Committee” has also stated that “loot boxes should be considered gambling and regulated accordingly”. They also mention that “Loot boxes should be removed from games aimed at children” and that “Loot boxes should be regulated by UK gambling laws because they fit the description of playing a game of chance for a prize”
Although these changes have been recommended, it is not legally enforced and therefore many companies will still continue to prey on the young for their next big pay-day.
What do real gamers think of loot boxes?
To answer this question I caught up with fellow video game and sports journalist for The Dougnut and Medium, “Joe McCormick” on Discord, to see what he made of the claims by EA about loot boxes and whether he thought the current trends were acceptable.
Based on your experiences within the gaming community, do you feel gamer’s have grown tired of micro-transactions?
No, I don’t think there will ever be an area of gaming that dies out. All of the big gaming companies know that we get bored of stock skins and will always add accessories to make the game a little bit more interesting. Depending on who the gamer is, it will depend on who will end up paying. I, myself, have only ever purchased a season pass for a game once (which I do regret), but other than that I only ever invest in cosmetic items with in-game currency that I earn without opening my wallet. The Steam Community market is a great example of this – you can sell items that you pick up in the game for Steam wallet funds, which can go back into cosmetic items should you wish. It is possible to purchase £10 weapon skins without spending a penny – if you’re patient enough – but the actual transactions will never be something I will put money into. However, other gamers may be happy to spend £20 at a time on accessories and skins, so they won’t be tired of the trend. It all depends on the person.
Do you agree with EA’s statement that lootboxes can be compared to kinder eggs?
That is a definite ‘no’ from me. Micro-transactions are of a much higher value than an 80p Kinder egg, as you can easily spend three or four times what people earn an hour on a collection of virtual outfits. Kinder eggs are a simple concept – you spend 80 pence to receive a little toy enclosed in a chocolate egg; if you don’t get the toy that you wanted, it doesn’t matter – you are still able to enjoy the chocolate that surrounds it. Loot-boxes are the opposite to this – if you were to spend £20 on a set of loot-boxes and not get anything good or anything you like, you’re left with nothing but virtual cosmetics that do nothing to benefit you in real life.
Would you say loot-boxes and other micro transactions have impacted consumers minds when it comes to buying full release titles such as FIFA and COD?
Absolutely. YouTubers have essentially taught young people to not be interested in the content you don’t have to pay for when it comes to these video games, and are also the people that spend £10,000 plus pounds every January when the FIFA Team of the Year is released into packs. I completely lost interest in FIFA when I realised that the game’s selling point – ‘Ultimate Team’ was considered ‘Pay to Win’. The most coins I ever earned during the year of owning the game was around 10,000, yet the best players can range from anywhere between 50,000 coins to 10,000,000 coins. When it isn’t possible to play the game in its best state without spending more money on top of the (already extortionate) £70 the game costs on release, people will naturally be more sceptical about buying these games – especially when it all resets in a year’s time.
What do you feel would be the best case scenario for loot-boxes, would you ban them like Belgium have or would you take a different approach?
I don’t believe loot boxes should be banned, as they do add a sense of enjoyment to the games. I enjoy running around in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive with a skin that cost 17 pence that I didn’t actually pay for. I enjoy Overwatch’s loot box system that will regularly gift you boxes without wanting to spend real life money. I believe games such as Fortnite purely make use of the hype in different industries (such as with the Marvel skins from the film industry) are blatantly trying to rip the money out of your wallet, and the parents have no clue what they are paying for. Games should offer you an experience where you can still enjoy skins without paying money, but for those that really enjoy the game, paying money is just an optional extra. To summarise – don’t make a FIFA, don’t make a Fortnite. Make an Overwatch.
Talking to Joe opened up my eyes to just how many forms of loot-boxes were out there, infesting games aimed at a predominantly young audience. When getting the perspective on whether he thought the trend would die out, stating it wouldn’t, it just goes to show how loot-boxes are a cemented part of video-game culture now, whether we like it or not.
Taking a stand
Though it seems bleak for the future of gaming in the UK, there is a glimmer of hope. Earlier this year a petition calling for the gambling act, which makes gambling illegal to under 18’s and the promotion of gambling, to be extended to video-games. The petition which got over 46,000 signatures on the petition for parliament website, prompted a response from the house of lords committee, who stated: “The government takes concerns around loot boxes very seriously and will be launching a call for evidence.This will put us on the best footing to take whatever action is necessary.”
Two months later, the committee came out with a report on the situation, detailing the effects of gambling harm, and the problems of exploiting “problem gambling”. It has therefore “called on the gambling legislation to cover loot-boxes.”
“The report stresses that the Gambling Act does not need amending to allow it to cover loot boxes; ministers already have the power to make regulations to do this, so it could be done in a matter of weeks.”
Secondly, the legislation showed in a chart that the youth problem gambling rate had reached 1.6% in those surveyed in the 11-13 year old age range, a statistic that could well be related to the rise in loot-boxes over the last few years.
A study above by the Gambling Commission, Young People and Gambling Survey.
Further on in the report it states “Using skins as a currency to gamble online is considered gambling, and is already regulated by the Gambling Commission under the Gambling Act 2005.” This is the distinct difference in the law between what is already considered gambling, and what needs to be included in the legislature.
The evidence put forward in the report claims that “Star Wars battlefront 2 which was subject to widespread criticism” was one of the first games to be widely criticised for its loot-boxes back in 2017. Eventually the game removed these loot-boxes due to the uproar from players and was the first real win for the consumer.
Further evidence put forward for the loot-box problem showed that an analysis on loot-box spending by Dr. Zendle, showed that “loot box spending is linked to problem gambling in both adults and adolescents.” Among this research it stated “spending money on loot boxes is linked to problem gambling, and that the more money individuals spent on loot boxes, the more severe their problem gambling got.”
In a final statement the doctor said on the regulation of the loot boxes:
The ideal thing to have happened would have been industry self-regulation. It would have been some sort of big commitment from the
video games industry to find out what is happening and do something
about it. That has not happened. Therefore, I am not against the
proposals… that some form of regulation external to the games industry
Although after this statement was made there was no further action taken against companies or noticeable changes, it still goes to show just how the voices of a few from the community can make a change for the rest of us. Although the companies still continuing these practices are safe for now, the law may change in 2021 in the UK and follow the approach made by the Netherlands and Belgium in stopping these egregious practices.