The controversy behind loot boxes, or loot crates, doesn’t seem to be settling down anytime soon. These are digital treasure chests that gamers can buy using in-game or real-life currency, and they’ve taken the gaming community by storm. The problem is that players don’t know how valuable a loot box is until after they purchase it. A number of hardcore gamers have lost thousands of dollars by just paying for the chance at winning an item that could power up their avatar and significantly improve their gameplay.
Are Loot Boxes a Form of Gambling?
The random nature of loot boxes gives many gamers and legislators reason to equate loot box obtainment to gambling. What lies within a loot box could be a completely worthless item or a widely-sought rarity that revolutionizes a player’s entire in-game experience.
There is evidence that suggests that they are a form of gambling. A study by the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Gambling Research found a link between gambling and loot boxes. The study, conducted using a group of University of British Columbia students and a separate group of North American adults, found that the majority of participants viewed loot boxes as gambling and had opened a loot box at least once.
Of the adult group, 68.1% saw loot boxes as gambling. Of the student group, 86.2% agreed. From the adult group, 88.9% had opened a loot box before. From the group of students, 94.8% had opened a loot box at least once.
Moreover, according to The Verge, gamers with past gambling addictions or even poor impulse control have lost thousands of dollars due to loot box gaming. Nineteen-year-old Reddit user Kensgold, admitted in an open letter to EA that he spent more than $10,000 on loot boxes from a myriad of games in the last two years.
In spite of all this, the classification of loot boxes as gambling remains an area of debate.
Legislation to Protect Kids
Fortunately, legislators as well as gaming industry groups have taken action to regulate and even ban developers from loot box abuse.
Last week, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) announced that renowned game developers Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have committed to disclosing the drop rates—i.e. odds of receiving the desired item—of loot boxes. This means that from this point on, all games released under those developers will show the likelihood of receiving a desired item in a loot box.
Activision Blizzard, Bandai Namco, Bethesda, Bungie, EA, Take-Two Interactive, Ubisoft, Warner Bros., and Wizards of the Coast have also agreed to include drop rates in their games by 2020.
In May, Missouri Senator Ron Hawley introduced the Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act, which aims to ban loot boxes for children under 18 and pay-to-play microtransactions for games designed for minors.
Last fall, New Hampshire senator Maggie Hassan has also requested the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether loot boxes require protective measures for child gamers.
The Bad News
Despite the ESA’s steps to help gamers make educated loot box purchases, loot box regulation is limited. And if approved, Hawley’s bill won’t take effect for a while.
ESA’s requirement to reveal drop rates only included games playable on consoles like the Playstation 4, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch. PC games, which many make use of loot boxes for revenue, remain unregulated.
What Parents Can Do
In the meantime, parents can check if games have any loot boxes before purchasing a game. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has labels on physical copies of games that indicate if the game has any in-game purchase offers, an umbrella term that in-game transactions like loot boxes fall into.
Unfortunately, searching up a game in the ESRB online database won’t reveal if that game has loot boxes in it or not. However, other online resources can answer that question for you. A simple Google search using the key term “list of games with loot boxes” can do the trick.
The purpose of checking if a game offers loot boxes for sale isn’t only to protect children from developing a potential gambling addiction. Evading games that have loot boxes can discourage developers from including them in games.