With the recent announcement of a US legislator proposing a new law to put age restrictions on games that include RNG loot boxes, I wanted to take this time to talk about when loot boxes are gambling, when they’re not, and why that matters.
To really understand this issue, one first has to learn exactly what gambling is defined as. Gambling is the wagering of something of value in an uncertain situation with the express intent of winning something else of value (more money or material goods). Material goods and money are the 2 key phrases that really dictate what gambling is and what it isn’t. Meaning, gambling is only defined as such when you have the chance of either making money or winning something of value. Whether or not winning virtual goods within a video game opposed to a betting platform is considered gambling hasn’t been completely defined, yet.
Things get really convoluted when you consider that CS:GO’s skins have been used for gambling/betting in eSports for quite a while now and have even been regulated under certain gaming commissions. Not video gaming commissions, but gaming in reference to gambling. In 2016 alone, CS:GO’s skin trade was reportedly worth… wait for it… an estimated $5,000,000,000 USD. No, really, $5-billion USD. Wow.
There are also core differences between gambling and taking a gamble. One could argue that they are the same thing, but in my opinion, they’re very different. An example of taking a gamble would be to preorder a game. You’re unsure if it’ll actually be as good as you’re hoping, but you’re still buying it based on speculation that it might be awesome. Whereas, an example of gambling would be buying tons of containers in CS:GO with the intent of finding a Crimson Web karambit to sell for ~$1800.
With that in mind, let’s move on.
When are loot boxes gambling?
Based on the brief definition and examples we just covered, loot boxes are only gambling when there’s a potential profit to be made from them. That doesn’t make the other kind of loot boxes any better so just stay with me here while I explain how they’re different and actually worse.
If you’ve ever played CS:GO, you probably know how valuable some skins are; if you don’t, check out PC Gamer’s article on the most expensive CS:GO skins from earlier in 2017. The chance of looting something worth $4800+ means that some people will see serious incentive to buy a ton of loot boxes in the hopes that they’ll eventually hit that payout – really no different than playing a slot machine. Is it gambling? Yes. What can be done? I’m not sure, let me know your ideas in the comments.
On the other hand, if you look at something like Star Wars: Battlefront 2’s original loot boxes, they weren’t necessarily gambling, at least not in the same sense. Same goes for LoTR: Shadow of War or any AAA-price game that implements RNG loot boxes purchased with real money. No, these particular loot crates aren’t gambling, they are undoubtedly worse than gambling. These crates are simply a way to make you pay more money for access to content that’s already in the game you just paid $60+ for. Now that’s messed up.
In an effort to push the sale of these particular loot crates, they’re often colored as time savers or potentially containing rare items. In some cases, loot crates have made certain AAA games completely pay to win as you could simply buy your way to the top for another $60 or so. If things keep going this way, I wouldn’t doubt that we’ll start to see “Buy max level” microtransactions in some games opposed to making people grind it out through loot crates.
In closing, I only consider loot boxes as gambling when there’s actual money to be made from them. There’s really only a few games like that; CS:GO and DOTA2 are a couple off the top of my head. I wouldn’t call the systems implemented into these particular games predatory by nature, but they’re definitely gambling and should be looked at closely to determine a fair solution.
When loot boxes aren’t gambling is when the only thing you’re getting can be used in-game. When you’re basically paying for access to content that’s already in the probably $60+ game you just bought. That’s exactly when loot boxes transcend beyond gambling and step into a whole new universe of madness and greed. These loot boxes I would call predatory by nature. They have effectively changed the DNA of the modern AAA video game into something more resemblant of a virtual casino that never pays out.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this issue, let me know what you think in the comment section below.