As long as a term of the video game world into wider society, it’s a safe bet that it’s not for good reason. Loot boxes like Hot Coffee or Gamergate don’t buck this trend. For at least the past five years, fueled by a mixture of Reddit grassroots organizing and parental horror stories — “my teenager spent £6,000 on FIFA cards” — these random prize draws have drawn the world’s ire; in several countries, they are now illegal. Last week, after a 22-month consultation, the UK government decided that loot boxes will not be regulated by gambling laws. Despite finding a link between these systems and problem gambling, the government has left regulation to the industry.
The nuance has been lost in this discussion. It’s never been a binary choice between bans — “the nuclear option,” says David Zendle, a computer science professor at York University — and letting the industry grow. This is “misdirection,” he says, and gives players the impression that they are at risk of losing their games. The precedent it sets is disappointing. It shuts down debate on regulation of any kind, leaving pro-industry groups like the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and Pan-European Gaming Information (PEGI) to take advantage. After all, loot boxes aren’t the only industry practice to examine. Predatory monetization is endemic.
Researchers trace early loot boxes to Chinese free-to-play MMO ZT Online, released in 2006, where players opened virtual treasure chests. This formula mutated through several mobile games to mainstream franchises: in 2010, Valve incorporated them into Team Fortress 2. Activision Blizzard’s hit Overwatch and its rewards of color-coded rarity led to a slew of major titles, including Activision’s. Call of Duty: WW2 and Xbox Gears of War 4, incorporating them as well. The practice hit its lowest point with Electronic Arts’ Star Wars: Battlefront 2, in 2017, a “pay-to-win” system that sparked outrage and saw Congressman Chris Lee of Hawaii label the game “a Star Wars-themed online casino.” EA redesigned the system, but lost billions and regulatory bodies started to take notice: Belgium would ban loot boxes in 2018.
Currently, it is Fifa Ultimate Team that most people would associate these systems with. The odds of picking, say, a Prime Moments R9 card are ridiculously low (EA won’t tell us how low). Converted from the in-game currency of FUT Coins, the card is worth thousands of dollars.
Whether a system like this (or more egregious examples; not all loot boxes are built the same) constitutes gambling or results in problematic gambling is both a hot topic and a problem: the bottom line is that loot boxes offer another avenue for the vulnerable to ruin their lives. Correlative evidence between loot box engagement and problem gambling symptoms is robust. The fine line between gambling and gambling is a growing academic field. And the rush I felt as a kid when I pulled a shiny Venusaur out of my booster pack is indistinguishable from the rush I feel as an adult when I win a hand of poker, or, more equivalently, hit roulette.
All of this leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but it also suggests that predatory monetization comes down to gambling. This is not the case. “Loot boxes are what a lot of people know about,” says Zendle. “But at the same time that the loot box existed, there have always been other cases of players reporting exploitation or coercion.” Even if the UK had banned loot boxes, says James Close, professor of clinical education at the University of Plymouth, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Fearing regulation, many game publishers have already moved on. Overwatch 2 won’t use loot boxes, and even EA, Close says, with a little effort, could change its business model. Monetization has diversified (in some cases for the better, he says), but so has the predatory kind.