loot boxes are definitely gambling

what the fuck is “value”, and how do we determine it?

Kieran T. Newton
May 30 · 4 min read
this smug little shit is a MENACE (source: GameRant)

much digital ink has been (and will likely continue to be) spilled over mainstream (read: non-gaming) society’s intensifying hand-wringing over loot boxes. it’s getting messy — the government is even talking about stepping in. much of the discourse thus far has revolved around whether this monetization practice is predatory (which, yeah, probably), and whether children should be protected from it (again, yeah, probably). but i want to look at another aspect, one that’s been largely dismissed outright.

for the uninitiated: games are super expensive to make, so developers often have small things you can buy in the game. while these used to impact gameplay, people didn’t like that, so now, they’re primarily cosmetic. you can spend some cash to make your character or weapon look different, give them a dance to do, etc. while you used to be able to buy these outright, lots of games now hide them behind randomizers — these are “loot boxes,” which are basically slot machines for these cosmetic upgrades. like trading cards and so many other things, if you want a specific item, you’ll just have to keep pulling that lever until luck strikes.

the “loot tick” from Apex Legends (source: GameRevolution)

as all this has progressed — as EA had to completely redesign Star Wars Battlefront II after widespread outcry, as US senators started getting involved, as certain European countries started banning loot boxes entirely —with little exception, one opinion has stayed largely consistent: this isn’t gambling. sure, we have to protect kids, and this design plays on addictive tendencies! but you can’t trade or sell them, so it’s not like there’s any real-world value to these items.

i want to push on this idea, because it strikes me as an overwhelmingly limited view of what constitutes value. if a cosmetic item in a game has no real-world value, my question becomes, why not? saying that something without a price tag is worthless seems woefully unimaginative. is the sum of an item’s worth the extent to which it can be further utilized in a capitalist market structure?

some might say yes — that’s why these activities don’t constitute gambling. but first, two quick points: first, people clearly extract some sort of emotional value out of cosmetic items, otherwise they wouldn’t sell so well. this year alone, there has already been a wide array of fantastic reporting on how children are being bullied at school for not having good character skins in Fortnite (a game which, notably, does not have loot boxes, making that specific instance much more of an economic class divide). especially for children, for whom money is a strange and often meaningless concept, these items are absolutely valuable in and of themselves. second, gambling is based on much, much more than money. psychological research reveals that social performance and accessibility are often just as powerful motivators for gamblers as the potential financial reward. clearly, social factors are at play in these interactions.

mostly, though, i bring this up because it’s 2019, and the chokehold of late capitalism has convinced me that money kind of fucking sucks, and probably shouldn’t be the way we constitute value, or at least not the only way. i bring this up because i’m pretty sure that, personally, at this point, i want to look cool in a video game more than i want twenty dollars. what does that say about looking cool in a video game? what does that say about me? what does that say about twenty dollars?

personally, at this point, i want to look cool in a video game more than i want twenty dollars

i don’t have answers to these questions, not really. but i do know that the majority of my social interaction with my friends occurs in video games. i do know that i have fun buying a couple of packs (because hey, this game is free, and has given me a lot of enjoyment, so why not throw the developers some money?) and showing my friends the cool stuff i get, the same way i like to see theirs. i value those experiences.

and that’s just for me, and people like me. it’s not like that for everyone, i know. but also, just because i don’t get any value from going to a casino doesn’t make it not gambling. so maybe all i can say is that loot boxes definitely aren’t not gambling, either. maybe gambling is in the eye of the beholder.

Kieran T. Newton

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this is where i write way too many words about video games & language i guess (he/him)