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The troubling semantics of loot box ‘gambling’

Posted by Ben Musgrove on 23rd October 2017

The glacial drip of microtranscations into the gaming industry has long since become something more akin to Chinese water-torture. Whilst many titles have offered a dedicated store for downloadable content or aesthetic extras, the in-vogue concept of a loot box that guarantees a prize in exchange for a virtual currency is increasingly prevalent in major gaming releases, and is concerning sceptical consumers.

A number of major upcoming releases that have chosen to include this mechanic have made the debate a particularly sore point of late. The recent Open Beta for the commercial behemoth Star Wars: Battlefront II has drawn ire for its ‘pay-to-win’ model, as its loot box system includes items of tiered quality; a player who spends is far more likely to have access to more weapons and abilities, of a higher quality, than a player who only utilises their earned currency and daily gifts. Forza Motorsport 7, the longstanding racing franchise, has removed the permanence of the vehicle modifications received through its loot crates, so that the player is consistently having to return to the system for more. Even Middle Earth: Shadow of War, a game without direct contact with other players, has introduced a loot box system that allows a player quicker progression if they choose to pay for it.

Rebuttals from the respective developers of these titles understand the concern, and aim to reassure that the game will be accessible. Shadow of War’s design director, Bob Roberts, has spoken openly about the decision to include loot boxes purely as an alternative should the player want to take it: “We kept all of the loot boxes and the economy of real world money turned off in playtesting so we know we are balancing around an experience which is rewarding without any of that stuff.” EA have released a similar blog post on their website with regards to Battlefront II, reassuring customers that “the complete system was not in the Beta and will be changed over time.”

What these responses do not account for, however, is the addictive nature of taking risks in the slim hope of major benefit. Accusations that this system is specifically a form of gambling are rejected on a technical basis, with the ESRB stating that “While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want).” The PEGI have offered a similarly defensive position, admittedly with more flexibility: “We cannot define what constitutes gambling… if a gambling commission would state that loot boxes are a form of gambling, then we would have to adjust our criteria to that.”

Both of these responses focus upon the technical restrictions of gambling, without acknowledging the unhealthy behaviour that the models encourage in a young and impressionable audience; FIFA 18, a title boasting one of the largest loot box economies in video gaming, has an age restriction of just 3+. The refusal to acknowledge the gambling at a legislative level comes across as semantic pedantry rather than responsible guidance. As such, concerns with regards to the transparency and age-appropriate content of the games being produced are right to be in the public focus.

Photo credit.

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.