Loot boxes in video games contribute to an unpopular business model, have strong similarities to gambling, and can spur addiction. But Alberta legislation restricting them may not be necessary or likely.
Political scientist and gaming expert Mark R. Johnson says a microtransaction is a purchase made in a game already owned by the consumer, like a 50 cent hat worn by their in-game character.
Meanwhile, loot boxes are a type of microtransaction “where you don’t know upfront what you’re getting. [The aspect of randomness] is what makes loot boxes a distinctive subset,” he says.
They usually contain cosmetic features for the game, such as different looking but similar functioning guns in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – a competitive first-person shooter game – and character skins in Overwatch, a similar game that takes place in a comic book-like future.
Another less common type of loot box contains something that can directly and significantly affect gameplay. For example, one game mode in NBA 2K20, a video game based on the National Basketball Association, features loot boxes that have a chance at a rare, high-level player inside. EA’s Star Wars Battlefront 2 also originally had loot boxes that contained significant character upgrades before they were removed due to public outrage.
Nevertheless, a whole business model is now based around this kind of loot box.
“The trend is that increasingly, games are sold when they are incomplete and the players are expected to buy microtransactions, or loot boxes specifically, to get the game to a more play-worthy standard,” says Johnson.
This strategy signifies a departure from the common idea that video games are bought once as a product instead of continuously paid for after an initial purchase.
“Spending money on a loot box is a gamble which might or might not yield something that you want. They’re taking content out of the game in order to sell it back to players later,” Johnson says.
Adam Hernandez Ramos, a Calgarian who describes himself as a very active video game consumer, says, “I think there's a silent community that loves [loot boxes and microtransactions] because they generate billions [of dollars].”
But he says a vocal community disagrees, feeling that buying them is inauthentic because microtransaction boosts are like “buying the game twice to have twice the advantage.”
Manchester University enterprise lecturer Matthew Mcaffree agrees that some gamers have a distaste for loot boxes and microtransactions because of the business model attached to them.
He says microtransactions “get more and more controversial the higher the prices go, and the more they're offered as a supplement to buying a game at the traditional full market price.”
But the problems with loot boxes don't stop with the dollars and cents. The strategies used to sell them are similar to those used in casinos.
“You have a lot of sensory tools like bright lights, fun, exciting sounds, you put a timer on the screen that says limited time only,” says Mcaffree. “You open a loot box and you get all those sounds and colors and excitement. These are the exaggerated tools that you also see in places like slot machines, for example.”
Are loot boxes really just gambling?
Luke Clark, a psychology professor and gambling researcher at the University of British Columbia, says that an act is considered gambling if money is bet on a random chance at a larger monetary prize.
Though the prizes won from loot-boxes are often strictly in-game, Clark says there are marketplaces in which gamers can sell or trade them for cash. That makes loot boxes indistinguishable from gambling from a psychological viewpoint.
Mcaffrey agrees, saying that they’re similar enough to gambling to trigger the same psychological reactions, including addictive behaviour.
Gaming can become addicting for many gamers, but when money is involved, the addiction can be even more serious. Photo by Spencer Yu
This addictive behaviour can be destructive for the consumer. But it can be profitable for video game makers, according to Cam Adair, the Calgarian founder of an organization dedicated to fighting such addiction called Game Quitters.
Adair says consumers would traditionally quit playing a game after they’ve finished it. But today’s games are “optimized to capture your attention” and keep players “spending money on them.”
Adair has seen this kind of addiction firsthand. He says he had a client in the UK whose child “found it virtually impossible to play for a night without spending money.”
“They actually caught this 12-year-old sneaking into their bedroom at night, stealing their phones, and deleting the payment notification from their email that said he had spent money on the game.”
Meanwhile, here in Calgary, Adair had a family tell him their son spent “$5,000 in seven days on a game.”
According to Adair, loot boxes don’t only affect younger gamers, but people of all walks of life. He says he’s heard from wives whose husbands spent tens of thousands of dollars on them. But, more than anything else, loot boxes prey on impulsive people.
Gaming horror stories of money loss and addiction may alarm many consumers, and some governments have taken action against loot boxes. For example, in May 2019, United States senator Josh Hawley introduced a bill that would restrict loot box sales to consumers under 18, but it has yet to be approved. Belgium banned loot boxes altogether in April 2018.
Similar action has not yet been taken in Canada, which could be due to multiple factors Johnson brings up, including “the size of the video game sector in Canada” and the fact that Canadian lawmakers are “not quite as informed” on video games as lawmakers in some other countries. But he says it's important not to let sensationalism taint critical thinking when discussing action that can be taken against loot boxes.
“People can become addicted to anything on Earth. People can become addicted to having a smoke, but also to exercise or going to church. I don’t think there’s anything special about loot boxes that makes them more of an addiction problem than other routine activities.”
Johnson points out how the loot box controversy includes the “potent mix” of “video games, gambling, and children,” which can make the public “very concerned without necessarily looking in great detail at the issues at play.”
For this part, Mccaffrey warns against being “flippant and dismissive” of the potential harm of loot boxes due to a “lack of research on the issue,” but also recognizes the sensationalism surrounding them.
“It's without a doubt the case that there has been a moral panic about this and that it is fueled by people who we could just say are less than unbiased,” he says. “We should take a step back and try to be a little more dispassionate about the way we discuss these kinds of problems”
That seems to be what Canadian governments are doing right now – including Alberta.
Mcaffree doesn’t see much chance of this province putting legislation in place against loot boxes, saying he thinks the controversy around them will “peter out without a lot changing or a lot of new legislation.”
The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission said that it’s aware of the concerns around them, but the regulation of loot boxes would need to come through legislation at a federal level. It advised gamers to “use caution as they engage with loot boxes contained in online gaming platforms.”
*Photo by Guian Bolisay is linked to this Creative Commons License.
- By Gage Smith and Spencer Yu