Over the last decade, we’ve seen a trend of gambling-like features being added to video games, mobile apps, and even specific websites.
Some shopping platforms will give their customers a chance to “spin the wheel” and win vouchers or discounts with every purchase they make. Is that gambling? Well, hardly.
Yet, when it comes to video games, the opportunities to include gambling-hybrid products grow exponentially.
What are “loot boxes” and why is everyone talking about them?
In a nutshell, a “loot box” is a bundle of virtual items that gamers can acquire through extensive gameplay or purchase with real-world currencies. They can look like chests, crates, card packs, or even mystery boxes, carefully wrapped in eye-candy graphics.
Upon purchase, players get randomized items that are meant to enhance their gameplay experiences, such as cosmetic add-ons, exclusive avatars, and weapons, or certain power-ups that help them progress through the game faster.
Concerning the perceived value of the potential rewards, these can vary wildly, but it is a well-known fact that the most sought-after items have low drop rates. The element of chance is what differentiates loot boxes from regular in-game purchases.
You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand why loot boxes became a vital revenue model for many game development studios. People pay hundreds of dollars for a new virtual outfit while getting the thrill of an unexpected reward.
By the time a player recognizes this practice as toxic, they’ve already pumped into the game much more money than they initially intended. It’s a slow burn, but its risks are carefully concealed by dopamine spikes and the perceived innocence of the practice. After all, they’re just video games, right?
The Psychology behind Gacha addictions
To understand how harmful these game features can be, it’s useful to look at the Psychology behind them. Behavioral neuroscience has already established that unexpected rewards fire the highest amounts of dopamine in the brain.
This neurotransmitter, also known as the “feel-good” chemical, is released in the brain during pleasurable activities. One of its specific functions is to reinforce desired behavior in a person. You crack a joke, people laugh, and dopamine fires into your brain. You feel good about it.
Next time you find yourself amongst strangers, you might be faster to whip out your stand-up routine.
How does addiction really work?
Now, say you’re hungry and would really like a bar of chocolate. You insert $1 into a vending machine and wait for it to give you back an item at random. The probability of receiving a chocolate bar was abysmal, so you got a pack of gum instead.
Depending on how much you want your bar of chocolate, you might keep trying your luck. How many won keychains before you start thinking that what you’re doing looks an awful lot like gambling? You spent the value of that chocolate bar a couple of times over, and you’re still hungry by this point.
This real-world scenario might seem far-fetched, but most of us have already faced this dilemma in the digital space.
With loot boxes, the dopamine cells fire when you acquire them since this predicts a reward, then fire again when you open the box and get the reward. In addition, these dopamine responses receive a boost from players who imagine that their next loot box contains an ultra-rare or valuable item.
It’s also worth noting that this entire process is underpinned by several other visual and auditory cues meant to elicit stronger dopamine responses, as well as wrap the potential threat in a cloak of childlike innocence.
Loot boxes can look like eye-catching presents or treasure chests. Upon purchasing and opening one, a player could enjoy intricate cinematics, exciting motion graphics and sound effects. Some loot boxes can even imply a “near miss,” suggesting that the player was very close to receiving a rare item.
It’s easy to see how these factors, combined, can fuel further purchases, primarily when these boxes’ main demographic comprises highly impressionable children.
Can “loot boxes” be as risky as casino games?
Many video game developers argue substantial differences between the ‘loot box’ model and actual gambling. One of their main arguments is that in-game purchases will always offer a level of enhancement to the experience.
Moreover, a player can complete the game without spending any money, although their progress would be much slower than that of a player who spends. In reality, gamers’ low probability of obtaining their desired item by purchasing a loot box resembles the online gambling experience.
You don’t need to spend much time comparing classic video games to casino titles to find similarities.
Online gambling platforms are subjected to strict requirements to ensure they don’t pose risks to minors, yet the video game industry managed to dodge said restrictions. There’s also a high stigma associated with online gambling, and many people are properly educated about the damaging effects of this type of game.
Yet, no one really warns parents that gambling addictions can lurk outside casinos. Video games offer no disclaimers or warnings on potential addictions. Consequently, “victims” are less likely to be cautious and often realize they became addicted after they rack up massive bills.
Can microtransactions be a gateway to gambling?
It’s fair that spending thousands of dollars on these virtual boxes is not exactly common. There are countless testimonies from people who lost sizeable sums to the Gacha Gods, but low spenders can’t assume safety, either.
Several studies have already shown clear links between a range of video game practices and later involvement in gambling. When video games fail to offer the same adrenaline level, a player might look for the next best thing to satisfy their craving.
And since the underlying mechanics are quite similar, it shouldn’t shock us that these video game practices can be the perfect gateway to gambling.
Dr. David Zendle from the University of York warns that many novel practices in gaming tend to follow casino models or, at least, incorporate some speculative elements. He also highlights the existence of certain loopholes, which help game developers avoid regulation.
Many other academics expressed concerns about the psychological similarities between these little games of chance and full-blown gambling. Some consider these game mechanics a risk to public safety and demand immediate regulation. Some aren’t as quick to decide, as they deem the problem more complex.
An overwhelming majority of professionals understand the concern and stress the importance of keeping gambling products away from children.
To wrap it all up
Considering all factors, are loot boxes, really, a form of gambling? Well, it depends on whom you’re asking. Game developers have plenty of ways to “prove” that these loot box mechanics shouldn’t be regulated. After all, no player will ever get to cash out any money from one of these games.
However, authorities worldwide picked up on this looming risk, and it seems like new, better regulations are emerging for the protection of minors. Since 2018, The UK Gambling Commission and many other regulatory bodies around Europe and the US have been working on improved policies.
And if we were also to consider the increasing number of lawsuits from Canadian customers against game studios engaging in these practices, the future seems a bit brighter.
We probably won’t ever return to a place where video games are completely safe. Still, we can hope for age restrictions, complete disclaimers, and definitions of practices, spending limits and other tools to cultivate a sense of responsibility.
Specifics can be discussed forever, and developers will always find ways to hide behind loopholes. Yet, it is paramount that the potential risks reach the public eye. This way, parents can protect their children from lives of addiction, and players with a higher agency can decide for themselves whether they engage in these games or not.