Are Loot Boxes Gambling?

I’m sure many of you have seen these words recently in today’s gaming culture. Are loot boxes gambling and is it an unethical practice by game developers and companies who only want to get a quick buck off you. Before I attempt to answer this question, I think its important that everyone know what loot boxes and gambling are.

What Is a Loot Box?

In basic terms, a loot box is exactly what it sounds like, a digital box in your game that contains loot. The most prominent example of this is the Supply Drop from the Call of Duty series. Basically what happens here is you “call in” or redeem a supply drop, and it gives you 3 unique items, each of which go from common items, to “Heroic,” an ultra rare category of item. These items can be playercard emblems and calling cards, gun skins, character costumes, weapon mods, etc. It is completely random what exactly you get, you will always get at least a common item as well. Because of this, one box may give you great items, while another may give you generic and boring items. Other developers, most notably EA, have also followed suit with similar boxes promising players loot. You buy a box, you get random loot. This is where the problems that people see begin. Players purchase boxes with the intent of trying to get a rare item, only to find they’ve gotten mere crumbs. Many believe that paying for this chance at a good item is a form of gambling, but is that really true? To fully understand this we need to examine what gambling is.

Okay, So What’s Gambling?

Let’s pretend for a moment, you’ve gone to a casino to gamble. You spy an open roulette table and walk over, hoping to make a quick profit on some bets. You tell the roulette man “Put $25 on black.” The man spins the wheel and drops the ball, and it comes up on 12 red. You thought it would be quick and easy to bet it all on a color, and now your $25 is gone too. You walk away disappointed, and empty handed. This is an example that gives a little vision to the idea, but let’s talk specifics. For something to be gambling, it has to have risk. And by risk I mean there has to be a chance at a downside to your bet. Here the downside is you lose your bet. So with loot boxes, are you taking a risk? Technically no, because there isn’t a downside to opening a loot box. You do buy them with the intent of getting a good item, but even if you don’t get something you like, you still get something. This essentially removes any risk that would be involved with ordinary gambling. The items in loot boxes also have no real world monetary value, they are just digital add ons to improve your gaming experience. Gambling also has to have a chance for monetary gain, and you don’t get that with a loot box. To make a long story short, loot boxes are NOT gambling.

But are Loot Boxes Still Wrong?

Now you may be saying, “Well that’s true, but are they unethical?” I suppose that comes down to your own opinion on the practice of loot boxes but I’ll give you a take that hopefully gets you thinking about it. If we think about psychology, we know people like the rush they get from something going their way. You open a loot box and find a good item and it sends a shot of dopamine through your brain and you get a sense of enjoyment. You want to feel that again so you open another one, and another, and then pretty soon you’ve spent a lot of money and time. And that’s generally, what they want. Cash from the transaction and player retention. If you keep playing afterward with your new toys, it makes you more likely to get more loot boxes and to stay interested in the game for future content or a sequel. On some level it is wrong to take advantage of psychology to keep a person spending money or accomplish some other goal. No one wants something shiny put in their face and be manipulated. Of course, that happens with other things like businesses advertising on television or politicians saying they’ll so this one thing if you vote them in.

Game developers should probably focus more on improving a game’s content and features to sell the game and keep people playing rather than using these dreadful loot boxes. What’s worse is sometimes these items even impact gameplay and can give you an advantage while playing. Now you’re essentially giving lucky players and advantage over not so lucky players, and that’s just wrong. You should win by being better than the other guy, not because you have bigger toys than they do. And this also brings in less skilled players who want to use loot box items to do better. Its essentially a revolving door of people ever eager to open a box, and companies know it. But this may also speak to a bigger problem of self control and instant gratification. If you don’t like loot boxes, don’t buy them. Don’t be enticed by shiny new toys and play the game how you want. I personally don’t buy loot boxes, I take the free boxes you can get from just playing the game. But people want to get good items right away and just can’t wait. If you bought a game you enjoy enough to do that, then why not just play it longer to get items that way? Seems simple enough to me.

But the moral is this, game developers should stop including these loot boxes because it is manipulative for the purpose of getting cash and players. But they won’t, because people keep buying them. If you can easy revenue this way, why would you not include loot boxes? The solution begins with us resisting the urge of instantly getting an item. If we stop buying loot boxes, then they will go away.