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Why loot boxes are unethical and problematic in games

It doesn’t matter what the ESRB says, loot boxes are a big problem.

At the first glance, loot boxes in games don’t resemble our image of gambling. We associate gambling with the image of luxurious casinos, full of people putting colorful chips into slot machines to win a jackpot. Although the resemblance is hard to notice on the surface of many video games, the similarity becomes more evident when people are spending hundreds of dollars on blind boxes to obtain items that can be traded with real money.

Loot boxes are not different from gambling

If you are a serious gamer, you probably have spent real-life money for the unknown chance to win an item you really desired. It could be a new Halloween skin in Overwatch, or perhaps a Lionel Messi card in FIFA 16. Although I am not proud, I spent about 50 dollars last week trying to get all new Halloween skins on Overwatch. At first, I started off with purchasing twenty loot boxes, believing that it would be enough to get me Ana’s new pirate skin. But even after opening countless numbers of boxes full of disappointments, I couldn’t stop myself. Somehow, I thought I would definitely get the skin this time if I were to purchase 30 more boxes. I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I can be that unlucky’ as I pressed another purchase button. As it turns out, loot boxes never promise a 100% chance to win a specific item, no matter how many boxes a player opens. I didn’t get the beautiful skin I wanted even after 50 attempts so I ended up buying it with 3000 credits. Even though I wasn’t at a casino, I was spending dollar after dollar for another chance to hit the big time. Loot boxes are often not seen as gambling because you are always guaranteed to get some kind of item out of it. In other words, you will never walk out empty-handed. However, no one buys loot boxes to get mediocre and uninteresting items like sprays and voice lines, which almost always end up being inside of the Overwatch boxes.

Loot Boxes Are Everywhere Now

Loot boxes are very common in many popular games like Overwatch, Hearthstone, FIFA 16; the list is endless. Although implemented differently in each game, whether they are card packs, crates, or gift boxes, they all have the same intention. The gaming industry uses them to encourage players to pay real-life money for a randomised item. In games like Overwatch, these items are purely cosmetic, which does not affect in-game performance. But in some games like FIFA 16 and Hearthstone, they are directly linked to how well you can perform in-game, which makes loot boxes more attractive and harder to ignore. In either case, the possibility of getting something rare is really small, often not even revealed to the users. The developers also put a lot of effort into making the loot boxes visually appealing. For example, loot boxes come in different shapes for each event in Overwatch. During the Halloween event, the loot boxes are pumpkins full of candies and treats while they become present boxes with colorful decorations for Christmas. The change in design also makes the loot boxes feel more unique and special, making the users desire them even more.

Why Do People Buy Loot Boxes?

It is no secret that it is very difficult to get rare items from loot boxes and that aspect makes the item itself more special and enticing. So why are people still putting money in blind boxes when they know they have little chance of winning what they really want? At least in a casino, you can earn so much money back once you hit a jackpot. In games, all you are getting are virtual items you can’t see or use in real life so you will never get real-life money in return. However, this is quite different in games like FIFA 16 and Counter Strike where people can trade items with actual currency. When only 1% of the customers are getting an insanely valuable item that costs thousands of dollars while the rest are getting something with zero value, it’s hard to argue that loot boxes are not gambling.

Another problem with loot boxes is that they are portrayed as fun and enjoyable, almost making them an essential part of the game. The opening of a loot box is almost always accompanied by a celebratory audio and visual effect. This is no different from the flashing lights and loud sounds that a slot machine makes, which causes the pleasure centers in your brain to fire off.

People worry when seeing a young child playing slot machines online but are somehow perfectly fine with them opening hundreds of loot boxes, when they essentially have the same effect. Many YouTubers put videos of themselves opening loot boxes, feeling no shame about jeopardizing so much money to win items with monetary value. The gaming industry is very smart when it comes to making the experience of opening loot boxes like opening surprise gift boxes, causing users to forget that they are spending their own money for every box.

Although I, myself, am a guilty consumer of loot boxes, I strongly believe that loot boxes are an unhealthy component in games, especially when they are also targeting underaged audiences. By disguising them as pretty, colorful, and full of surprises, loot boxes are making people unknowingly participate in gambling.

Written by Se Jin Lee

Se Jin Lee is a computer science student currently enrolled at Sogang University in Korea. She came to Chapman University in Southern California for her exchange program. She is a passionate and a serious gamer who views games as one of the few powerful mediums capable of handling any issues and conveying messages to society. When she is not playing games, she likes to develop her own games.

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