Loot Boxes in Video Games

Electronic Arts VP Says Loot Boxes Are “Quite Ethical,” Not Gambling

The tug-of-war between video game developers and governments over loot boxes continued this week when Kerry Hopkins, Vice President of Legal and Government Affairs at gaming giant Electronic Arts, testified in front of the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee. She did herself no favors in the eyes of loot box critics, calling them “quite ethical” and referring to them by the clever euphemism, “surprise mechanics.”

Overwatch Loot Box

Overwatch Loot Box
Image credit: us.battle.net

Loot boxes have risen to prominence in video games over the last several years and as they have become more prevalent, they have become more controversial. Loot boxes take many forms depending on the game and platform, but Hopkins wasn’t wrong in her description, really. They are “surprise mechanics”.

Loot boxes are mystery boxes of items that can be used in the game. In some games, these loot boxes contain items that are purely cosmetic; in Overwatch, for instance, loot boxes contain things such as character skins, voice lines, and sprays. In other games, they can contain items that can help the player in the game, such as weapon upgrades or experience-points boosts (used to level up and advance in the game). Sometimes, it’s a mix.

Most games award loot boxes just for playing the game. Using Overwatch as the example again (because I play it a lot), players are given a loot box for leveling up, which happens naturally for spending time playing. They can also be earned through other game-play goals. Most games, Overwatch among them, also let players buy loot boxes either with real money or with in-game currency that can be purchased with real money.

The range of items that can be found in loot boxes is almost always known, but what one will actually receive is almost always not. If a player has his sights set on certain item, there is no telling how many loot boxes will need to be opened to get it and for the rarest items, that could mean hundreds of loot boxes. For those who buy loot boxes, the costs can add up.

The controversy is multi-faceted. When people pay money for an item that is determined randomly, that certainly feels like gambling. And when games allow purchases of loot boxes that can contain items that benefit a player in-game, that means that the game is “play-to-win,” in that the players who spend the most money are at an advantage. Children can be particularly vulnerable, as they often don’t understand item drop probabilities and can get sucked into the “just one more try” cycle.

In her testimony, Hopkins compared video game loot boxes to blind box toys:

If you go to—I don’t know what your version of Target is—a store that sells lots of toys, and you do a search for surprise toys, what you’ll find is that this is something people enjoy. They enjoy surprises. And so, it’s something that’s been part of toys for years, whether it’s Kinder Eggs, or Hatchimals, or LOL Surprise. We do think the way that we have implemented these kinds of mechanics in FIFA—[which] of course is our big one, our FIFA Ultimate Team and our packs—is actually quite ethical and quite fun. Enjoyable to people.

There are differences, though, that Hopkins is likely not addressing on purpose. There is a much greater incentive to buy loot boxes in a video game than there is to buy a blind box LEGO minifigure at Target, as the minifigures are just fun to collect, whereas loot box items can give a player a competitive advantage in a game. It is also often much easier for someone to click a button and buy more loot boxes – particularly a child – than it is for someone to make the trip to a store.

Hopkins also disagreed that loot boxes are gambling. Again, they certainly feel like gambling. The argument against them being so is a technical one: players are always guaranteed items in a loot box, whereas in gambling, a return is not guaranteed.

Electronic Arts has loot box mechanics in many of its games, including in its ever-popular Madden franchise. The company came under particular fire in 2017 when it was getting ready to release the anticipated Star Wars Battlefront II. This was a $60 game and at that price point, customers expect all content to be available to everyone. Instead, some characters had to be unlocked. The credits needed to unlock them could be found in loot boxes, which could be purchased with real money. Additionally, some items in loot boxes gave players advantages in multiplayer game modes. Players were going to buy a $60 game and then feel pressured to spend more money just to keep up. EA made changes just before release, but the stink was still there.

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