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The loot’s out of the box: ‘surprise mechanics’ and problem gambling

Posted by Ben Musgrove on 29th October 2020

One of my very first pieces of writing as a rosy-cheeked intern for Wildfire was a blog on the evils of loot boxes. With the dial moving in the right direction, it’s time for a cautiously optimistic retrospective.

Loot boxes are, in short, a random package of rewards within video games. You have to pay for them, which you can usually do with one of two currencies; one that’s free and you earn by playing, and one that you pay for with real money to get the prizes instantly.

Importantly, there’s no guarantee of the rewards you’ll get, and no visibility of the odds. EA calls this “surprise mechanics”; the company’s VP of legal and government affairs, Kerry Hopkins, likened them to ‘Kinder Eggs.’

The truth is that it’s statistically extremely unlikely that you’ll get what you want, without knowing the percentage chance of getting what you want. This means that you buy more currency to spin the wheel again to get another chance. And another, and another, and another.

The potential for loot boxes to act as a door into problem gambling is self-evident. Research in the Royal Society Open Science Journal states that “loot boxes either cause problem gambling among older adolescents, allow game companies to profit from adolescents with gambling problems for massive monetary rewards, or both of the above.” A replication study for non-profit PLOS ONE was able to replicate the results.

Similar research from the University of York recommend the purchase age to be raised to 18, while the Young People and Gambling report that year indicated that more than a million young people were exposed to loot boxes in 2018 – with the number of problem gamblers quadrupling.

So what does the recognition actually mean? Are we starting to see genuine change?

Well, yes and no.

On the plus side, we’re starting to see state organisations with the power to change perceptions and legislation take notice. NHS Mental Health Director Claire Murdoch has publicly condemned loot boxes, in no uncertain terms: “no company should be setting kids up for addiction by teaching them to gamble on the content of these loot boxes. No firm should sell to children loot box games with this element of chance.”

Most importantly, the UK government recognises the need for change. Earlier this year in June, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport called for evidence to understand the impact of loot boxes. This will remain open until 22nd November – you can submit evidence yourself here.

These changes are positive, but in their infancy. The UK lags far behind trailblazers on this issue that have protected people from the harm of loot boxes far more effectively.

Japan remains the gold standard here, outlawing ‘complete gacha’ – a loot box variant that trades cash for a random reward – from as early as 2012 on the basis of “unjustifiable premiums and misleading representations.”

Other countries have targeted the issue of probabilities. In 2016, China ruled that the exact probabilities of receiving items had to be included in any loot box system and has since introduced caps on the number of loot boxes that users can buy per day. Belgium has since demanded similar mechanisms, while actually declaring loot boxes a form of illegal gambling.

The Netherlands, which considers loot boxes akin to slot machines, completes the list of just four countries that have actually legislated against loot box mechanics. Given that loot boxes raked in more than $30 billion(!) in 2018, the pressure on governments and legislators not to regulate such a lucrative market will inevitably slow progress.

So while momentum is building, the gaming industry is a long way from where it needs to be in terms of protecting young people from predatory mechanics. Last month, EA had to remove an advert for FIFA Points – a microtransaction currency exclusively for the purchase of loot boxes in FIFA – from the Argos catalogue. An admission that the advert “had appeared in an environment it shouldn’t have” makes a funny story that touches upon a more tragic truth: we need to do better.

Ben Musgrove

Bringing a can-do attitude and an exceptional work ethic to any project, Ben joined the Wildfire team in 2017 as an intern, following a role as a business operations executive with the award-winning tech startup Housekeep. Ben has a literary brain, having gained an MA in Literature & Culture from the University of Birmingham. When his nose isn’t buried in a book he can be found heckling officials from the terraces of Woking FC and trying not to upset the neighbours too much with his electric guitar.