Loot Boxes Expose Thin Line Between Gaming And Gambling

“Loot Boxes” have come to dominate gaming news in 2017. These are in-game objects with a random assortment of virtual items, which can sometimes be obtained in-game but more likely have to be purchased with real-world money. And there’s some concern that this could be teaching kids to gamble.

But really, this isn’t as new as most people seem to think it is. Way back in the 1990s, collectible trading card games like Magic: the Gathering, Pokemon, and Yu-Gi-Oh were selling card “booster packs” in stores. Pop a pack, and you could pull out a $100 mythic rare – or worthless junk. Even outside of games, baseball cards were once packaged with bubble gum and about the same random odds of pulling a rare, valuable card.

But it’s only recently that video game companies have come under fire for loot box distribution, just because it’s such a transparent money-grab. Electronic Arts drew a lot of derision in the gaming community for Star Wars Battlefront II, which uses loot boxes. The issue is that it’s simply too easy to fine-tune an algorithm on a computer to reduce odds on getting anything valuable from a loot box.

The bottom line remains that any kind of legislation of loot box practices is unlikely. Gamers are more than able to vote with their wallets. In the case of EA, veteran gamers will recall The Sims franchise, which had an endless parade of expansion packs, all the price of the full game, but delivering less and less additional content. After that experience, gamers could have had some foresight about EA’s practices. Gaming companies as a whole might learn a lesson from the backlash. But when they’re not being too greedy about it, loot boxes are still fun, so nobody’s calling for them to go away completely.