Identifying the Issue
With the recent release of Star Wars: Battlefront II, and the huge online backlash from fans
over the game’s loot box and microtransaction system, many debates have been about whether these business models which
many modern video games implement are fair to consumers (the gamers). Based on
player estimates, the Star Wars:
Battlefront II microtransaction model upon release of the game required
gamers to either pay over $2100 in microtrasactions to unlock all the content
in the game or 4528 hours of game time, or 40 hours of in-game time per
character. That’s actual time spent in gameplay, not including time spent
loading into matches, browsing menus etc.
Firstly, there is the question about whether loot boxes
count as gambling. Politicians and Governments around the world have started
investigating these loot box systems to determine whether they need to create
laws that protect children from these business models. For example, in 2016,
China introduced a law which requires game publishers (on all platforms) to
display the odds of getting specific items in loot boxes. This is because the
in-game items obtained from these loot boxes are often worth less than what the
player paid for the loot box itself. However, sometimes the items received are
worth more, which is what sparks the entire loot boxes and gambling debate.
These loot boxes are often compared to casino slot machines. For example, in Star Wars: Battlefront II, when you open
a loot box, the sound and animation the game makes literally resembles those of
a slot machine. Is this to get people addicted to them? Is this to exploit
vulnerable gamers, such as children just to generate a bigger ongoing revenue
for game publishers? This is what I will discuss in this essay.
Before I delve into microtransactions, I will discuss loot
boxes in further detail.
What other reasons are there which explain why loot boxes
are compared to traditional gambling? My research has led me to two main
The act of buying a loot box with real money for
a chance to get your desired in game item is a gamble. This hope for
unguaranteed chance of winning can be called a ‘win state’ – the chances of
winning said specific item are completely random.
With loot box business models in video games, there
is no way for the gamer to force this win state. In microtransaction models,
you can give real, or in game currency to buy the item you want. In the exactly
same way you can’t make the roulette give you your desired number which you
placed a chip on, or a slot machine give you the jackpot, it is impossible to
make a loot box give you the exact in game item you wish to acquire.
According to research conducted by Kim SW (1998), the act of
simply waiting for the final outcome of any gamble tends to activate the
brain’s chemical reward system. This releases endorphins which create pleasure.
Let’s look at this in the context of gaming. Picture someone who really wants
the Night Ops: 76 skin for Soldier: 76 in Overwatch. They pay real money for 5 loot boxes and when the
box opening animation plays with the sound, they get excited. This moment of
excitement happens five time in the short space of a few minutes. Let’s say
that this person did not receive the Night
Ops: 76 skin they wanted. It would be easy to assume that this person would
not buy any more, after experiencing five disappointments in a row. However,
according to more research conducted in the field of gambling, there are five
thought processes a person will go through that will lead them back to
gambling. These are:
Rogers, 1998 – Chasing. This involves the gambler continuing the gamble to regain
their losses caused by the gambling itself. In gaming loot box context, the
person may be unhappy that they bought 5 loot boxes in Overwatch and didn’t receive the skin they wanted. Perhaps if they
bought 10 loot boxes and received the skin, that would be more satisfying than
buying 5 loot boxes and receiving nothing. This is the “Chasing” cognitive
fallacy: if I keep going, maybe I will win back what I just lost.
Rogers, 1998 – The Gambler’s Fallacy. This refers to thinking that negative
outcomes are less likely to occur right after several negative outcomes have
already occurred. Imagine that our Overwatch
player has bought loot boxes several times, and not got his desired skin.
The Gambler’s Fallacy states that the player would continue to buy more loot
boxes, with the mindset that they’ve been unlucky several times already, and
that they are bound to get the skin soon.
Kahneman, 1982 – Self Correcting and Fair. This one is the belief gambling is ‘self-correcting
and fair’. People will feel that they are ‘due’ or ‘entitled’ to a win as their
luck has been poor thus far. In context, “Those boxes were awful and didn’t
have anything I wanted, the next ones will be good”.
Turney, 2008 – Cheating The System. This one is like the one above, with the main
difference being that the gambler feels entitled to success, basically feeling
that they are due to a win as their luck has been poor so far. For example: “I
only got three sprays in one box, the next one will have skins including the
one I want!”
Rogers, 1998 – The Entrapment Effect. This one argues that gamblers may feel obligated
to keep investigating in the game because they have already invested too much
money to give up now. In a similar way to Chasing, the gamer may feel like it’s
necessary to keep on purchasing these loot boxes until they get what they want.
They’ve already spent too much, so they may as well carry on so they can get
what they want eventually.