The ESRB Are Right: Loot Boxes Aren’t Gambling

battlefront-2-loot-crates

The ESRB has finally chimed in on all this loot box nonsense in our games:

“ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling,” “While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.”

Why have they made this statement? Well, because loot boxes are coming in virtually all of this holiday’s most anticipated games: Shadow of War, Battlefront 2, and even Assassin’s Creed: Origins (the latter of which won’t allow you to obtain these with real world money). As a result, online personalities like John ‘Totalbiscuit’ Bain have asked the ESRB to classify loot boxes as gambling. Fortunately, they’re not going to do so.

Before I continue, let me be clear: I don’t like loot boxes in my video games. I like the progression systems we’ve had just fine (levels, skill trees, etc.), and loot boxes are really only there to make the publisher a couple extra bucks. Lots of people wave loot boxes off by saying, “Well, who cares. The stuff they provide is cosmetic.” They aren’t, though. Not anymore. But for the sake of argument, let’s agree that all loot boxes are just a means of delivering cosmetic content. If a publisher is allowing you to purchase these things with real world money, that means the game you paid full price for has been artificially inflated. A game with padded runtime, all for the sake of having a loot box system in place, is a waste of your time. They WANT you to spend money in order to skip the grind. That’s why these systems exist in the first place. Now, also for the sake of argument, let’s look at games that have loot boxes, but don’t allow you to buy them with real world money. That’s still a game that treats grind as actual content… but what’s the point in that? Quality over quantity trumps these practices every time.

So yes, please, keep loot boxes out of my game. No, I’m not strong enough to stay away from games like Battlefront 2, whose loot boxes can be purchased AND offer clear advantages over other players in-game. At the end of the day, I want to play the games I know I’ll have fun playing. Still, that doesn’t mean I can’t say, “Hey, this game would be better if they…”

Now with that all in mind, I need to get something off my chest: I actually agree with the ESRB. Loot boxes should not be considered gambling.

No, really. They shouldn’t be considered gambling, and I wish people on the internet, especially people with large audiences behind them, would stop saying so. Let’s look at the definition of gambling (per Dictionary.com):

-The activity or practice of playing at a game of chance for money or other stakes.

-The act or practice of risking the loss of something important by taking a chance or acting recklessly

Gambling has a very specific definition. Yes, unpredictability and the triggering of a dopamine response (and even addiction) are major components of gambling, but to ‘gamble’, you’re putting up money, or something else you’d lose if things didn’t turn in your favor. Loot boxes, on the other hand, do not carry these stakes. As the ESRB have said, you’re always getting something in return, even if it’s not what you had wanted.

Dr Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, recently told PC Gamer: “The player is basically working for reward by making a series of responses, but the rewards are delivered unpredictably,” “We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards. Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis.”

While loot boxes may engage similar activity in the brain, there’s still a distinction between loot boxes and gambling. They are not one and the same. If anything that triggered a dopamine response, especially triggered by uncertainty, were considered to be the same, then we’d have to start making other ridiculous statements, right? “Loot boxes are drugs!” But that’s silly, because we know they aren’t. And they also aren’t gambling.

OpenCritic has decided to note which games have loot boxes, as its CEO doesn’t care for this system at all: “You can call it gambling, you can call it gaming addiction, you can call it whatever you want. The problem is still the same.” He has a point. “The ESRB would say that violence is bad for society so violent video games get a higher rating. Gore is bad for society so gory video games get a higher rating. And nudity and cursing, those are bad so they get a higher rating. And yet something that really could have a serious impediment to the mental development of children, they’re saying ‘well it’s not technically gambling so we’re not going to make a stand here.” More good points, but ultimately, he lost me.

Loot boxes. Aren’t. Gambling.

I’ll certainly agree that they can lead to the same negative outcome, but the distinction is important because think of everything that would be screwed over if we allowed opinions on the internet to change the very definition of what gambling is…

If you declare loot boxes as gambling, then you have to consider the plastic egg machine that most of you have seen at your local supermarkets. You know the ones; you feed a quarter (or two, or three) into a machine, and it gives you a plastic egg with a tiny toy or trinket inside. You don’t know what’s inside, but that’s kind of what makes it exciting, right? Is THAT gambling? No, of course not. If there’s anything from the local arcades which could be considered gambling, it would be all those games of chance, especially the ‘money broom’, where a brush is always on the verge of pushing a bunch of coins over the edge. You say, “Gee, I bet my quarter will be the one to push ‘em all over!” So you pop your coin in, you get nothing, and you walk away with nothing. THAT’S gambling. You took a chance, you lost some money, and you have nothing to show for it. That happened to us all the time as kids, and were we traumatized? No. We walked away a little disappointed, and it helped build character.

But recreational outrages want you to believe that loot boxes are going to lead your kids to a life of drugs, mental illness, or worse. That’s taking things way, way too far.

What I do agree with is clearly labeling the games which contain the loot box mechanic. I mean, anything extra is usually labeled on the back of a game box. Need hard drive space? It’s listed. Need an internet connection? It’s listed. Require a PSVR headset or something? That’s listed. Mobile games especially will tell you if there are additional purchases involved, too. If loot boxes are involved, people should also know about that. Because yes, it’s a mechanic which people can get addicted to, and if their game is going to have it, they should be notified at the point of purchase in case they want to avoid it.

But let’s not hold our breath, because that won’t happen anytime soon.

When it comes to these practices, the industry is still in the wild west. Government hasn’t stepped in to make any rules or regulations yet… but it’s inevitable. Studios are earning a ton of money with microtransactions, DLC, and loot boxes, that it’s going to draw enough attention for regulation to become a consideration. It’s a shame it has to be that way, but AAA studios haven’t been able to help themselves… and gamers are the ones who suffer for it.

The sad thing, is that loot boxes don’t have to be inherently bad. The only reason why they are is because of corporate greed. If a game was designed with loot boxes in mind, didn’t charge real world money for them, and actually made the game an all-around rewarding experience without hours and hours of pointless grind, it could be fun… COULD be. But they aren’t, and here we are.

To those of you who avoid these games completely, I applaud you. Your resolve is strong. Again, some of us (like myself) still like to play the games we know we’ll have fun with, even if it means sending the wrong message. Life’s too short to not enjoy things… but I think we’re getting into something which can be a whole other article.

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