YOU, ARE, A, TOY! The Lootbox and EA Controversy
Loot boxes have long been a part of the game’s industry. Ever since Maplestory released their “Gachapon tickets” to allow you to roll for in-game items, the system of buying a random item in a game has steadily become more and more popular amongst developers. However, the latest EA controversy has brought things to a whole new level.
Famously games like Overwatch and CSGO have used the boxes to generate enormous revenue, enough so that they can give other in-game content like new maps and characters away for free. But there’s a darker side to these Kinder-egg -like items.
The Dark Side of Loot Boxes
Have you ever seen a skin for a character in a game and gone, “that looks awesome! I want it!”? In the past games such as League of Legends and DoTA2 would allow you to go into the in-game store, find the item you saw, and buy it right then and there. While these games and others still let you do that today, many more are switching towards loot boxes: item packs that contain random in-game content that is generated upon opening the pack.
In a way, this kind of pack has been around forever, especially in the card game scene, where players buy booster packs full of random cards. Don’t get the card you were looking for? Guess you’ll have to buy a new pack.
The difference, however, lies in the vessel in which these item packs are created: card games are physical, and you can trade cards with other players, or go online and buy that specific card you were looking for, likely at a premium but still lower than buying packs and opening them till you got it.
Loot boxes, however, are digital, and generally, once you open them, that’s the end. You generally can’t go trade items with other players (CSGO and Maplestory are rare exceptions to this), you can’t go to eBay and buy the individual item from someone, and there isn’t an Overwatch shop down the street selling Tracer poses. Instead, you have to continue buying more and more boxes.
What’s worse, these boxes can cost as little as $.99, so often you won’t realize how much you’ve actually spent on the boxes. This may seem like nothing, but say you gave a kid access to that. The keep buying box after box thinking, “hey, they’re only $.99, who’s it going to hurt.” Next thing you know, you’re checking your bank account and suddenly see hundreds of dollars in purchases flushed out of your account.
As someone who’s spent money on loot boxes himself, mostly on Fate Grand Order and Puzzles&Dragons, I can say that it seems cheap at first, but it quickly adds up.
The worst part of all those is how they’re designed to make you feel: they’re often given flashy opening sequences and cool effects to make opening the boxes fun, to get you, outside of wanting to get that item you’re looking for, to want to see it again and open more and more of them.
For some people, this can become habit forming, and there are some who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on games. These super-spenders are called “whales” in the industry, and to them, it’s the rush of opening boxes, of going “just one more time” at it, to get that rare item. If that sounds familiar, you’re not wrong: it sounds just like gambling, and therein lies the problem.
Legislative Efforts & the EA Controversy
Many parents and politicians have raised concerns about loot boxes, and their eerie similarity to gambling. They worry that continued exposure to these item packs for kids and young adults can lead to them developing a terrible gambling addiction that could severely impact their futures. This fear for children’s futures has led one politician, Senator Josh Hawley, to introduce a bill banning loot boxes in children’s games, or games that children are allowed to play.
The bill has quickly become a divisive issue amongst the gaming community. Many developers, such as EA, Blizzard, and Activision have continued to call for the repeal of the bill, and other legislation like it, saying that loot boxes are not gambling or gambling addiction, and should not be regulated as such. On the other side, many players have decried the apparent desire of developers today to squeeze every last cent out of their players, forcing many players to quit once prosperous games because they can’t keep up with the loot boxes, season passes, and DLC.
These sides came to a head a couple of days ago, when the UK Digital Culture, Media, and Sports Committee met with EA and Epic to discuss microtransactions and loot boxes in games. The meeting led to a rather distasteful clip in which EA Vice President Kerry Hopkins said, comparing loot boxes to Kinder Eggs, “You open a Kinder Egg and you expect a toy – and you get a toy. With a loot box, you’re hoping for something special…. It’s a lot more than just a throwaway toy. It’s something people aspire to have.”
EA's VP of legal and government affairs refuses to use the term 'lootboxes' in favor of 'surprise mechanics', compares them to Kinder Eggs, says they are not gambling and 'quite ethical'https://t.co/IbRqMwvJea pic.twitter.com/bJ8t3Fkib6— Nibel (@Nibellion) June 19, 2019
Videos of Kerry Hopkins statements spread on Twitter and poured extra fuel on the EA controversy
The comments were met with outrage across the gaming community, with many seeing EA as out of touch as the willfully misrepresented what loot boxes really are. They furthermore called the packs, fun,” something that your average gamer can tell you is clearly not the case. Both companies also denied that lot boxes lead to gambling addiction, and refused to comment on the appropriate amount of time their games should be played in a single sitting.
While the legislative efforts to regulate loot boxes in the US, UK, and elsewhere in the world will take time to get through the judicial process, the debate over the ethics of loot boxes in games rages on. If they stick around or go the way of the floppy disk, the impact these legislative hearings and the community discussion around loot boxes will definitely have a profound impact on the way games are monetized in the future. Whether that’s for better or worse, we can’t say: only time will tell.