Why loot boxes are bad for the gaming industry and dangerous for self-excluded players

A gamer staring intently at their screen.

A gamer staring intently at their screen.

When it comes to contemporary gaming controversies, few are as virulent as the spread of loot boxes. Gone are the days where you’d buy a game and wouldn’t need to spend another penny: now, loot boxes and other IAPs pervade across popular live-service titles to entice players into spending more. It's a method that often tows the lines of legality and morality, with some countries banning them outright. But just how problematic can loot boxes be, and why do they exist in the first place?

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What are loot boxes?

Put simply, loot boxes are randomly generated in-game item drops that cost real money to purchase. They operate as a virtual form of surprise box, where you know what sort of items you may receive, but not the specifics. Given you can't ever ascertain exactly what you'll get from a loot box, a grey area between gaming and gambling arises.

The presence of random player packs in EA Sports' FIFA series is perhaps the most prolific example of loot boxes. In the long-running yearly franchise, players can purchase FIFA Points using real money to spend on a range of packs. The contents of each one are completely randomised, so you could spend cash on an expensive pack and end up getting players that don't reflect the real-life value you've just handed over. Especially in a game that's accessible to millions of players under the age of 18, loot boxes can be controversial.

Another infamous example of loot boxes in action is the case of Star Wars Battlefront II from 2017. At launch, the only way to get Star Cards - a form of upgrade to weapons and operators - was by purchasing Loot Crates whose contents, as you may expect, were entirely determined by RNG. This went beyond just cash-grabbing: players saw it as a pay-to-win model where those able to spend hundreds of dollars on crates could quickly amass the best Star Cards and dominate multiplayer matches.

Therefore, it's easy to see why loot boxes are unpopular in the gaming community. They take control away from players, forcing them to part with cash for better items, often without even knowing what they'll get in return. That's why some see it as a thinly-veiled equivalent to gambling.

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Why are loot boxes bad for self-excluded players?

This intrinsic link between loot boxes and gambling are the main reason why they can pose such a threat to self-excluded players and younger, more impressionable gamers. The distinction between gaming and gambling is an important one: the former is a beloved pastime, while the latter is a riskier endeavour that carries a risk of addiction. With loot boxes, those lines can become blurred, which is why their presence is so controversial, especially All of this means that loot boxes have a negative impact on gambling fans, especially those who use only NonGamStopBets casinos that aren’t on GamStop and do not want to see any correlation with online gambling when they play video games.

For gamers already prone to gambling issues, having loot boxes in popular games like FIFA and Overwatch can be a serious threat and trigger point. When games tease all the incredible rewards you may get from purchasing a loot box, it can become difficult to quell the curiosity and undeniable 'what-if' thought: what if I purchase one loot box and get an amazing item? But of course, more often than not this doesn't work out.

Equally, loot boxes in gaming aren't as stringently regulated as gambling is. While the latter is strictly limited to over-18s only, these restrictions aren't in place for loot boxes in games. Age classification bodies like PEGI make a point of distinguishing when a game contains microtransactions, but this has no bearing on the certificate it ends up getting. Therefore, any child with a debit card can shovel all of their money into loot boxes without fully appreciating the risks.

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Games like FIFA have huge fanbases, with millions of players under 18 buying each annual release. Given they can load up cash and purchase these random boxes with no guarantee of good items and no way to renege on the deal to get their money back, it's clear to see why loot boxes are often compared to traditional gambling.

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Why do loot boxes exist in gaming?

There's one key reason that developers add loot boxes into games, and it's an obvious one: money. Once a game has been released, it's hard for gaming publishers to generate more additional revenue, so adding these evergreen purchases that consistently remain timely is a favoured method. The FIFA series consistently adds new players and promotions to its Ultimate Team mode to ensure there's always something new in packs that players will want to spend money getting.

While it's obvious that loot boxes are only there to lock content behind an RNG-fuelled paywall, it's heartening to know that the gaming community rallies against it. The 2017 release of Star Wars Battlefront II was marred by the poor fan reception to Star Cards appearing in Loot Boxes, to the extent that developer DICE eventually removed them from loot boxes. As such, it’s clear that loot boxes are there for one reason only: to make a quick buck despite the backlash.

Will loot boxes ever disappear?

While it doesn't seem like loot boxes are going away just yet, there has been some positive movement in recognising just how harmful they can be. Belgium is the forerunner in legislating against loot boxes, with the Belgian Gambling Commission ruling in 2018 that games containing loot boxes had to remove them, or face legal action. That came after a years-long study found that it's often children who purchase these boxes, lured in by the hope of getting high-quality items, even when the chances are slim.

Since then, games containing these mechanics have had to remove loot boxes for Belgian release, with EA Sports' FIFA franchise closing the door on packs in early 2019. It's proof that something can be done to reduce the blurred line between gaming and gambling, even if it takes a long time.

Loot boxes are still a fairly new concept in gaming, so there's every chance the near-universal backlash to this form of generating revenue will soon result in major changes in the industry. Until then, they're a risky form of purchase that blurs the line between gaming and gambling.

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