The Federal Trade Commission is finally investigating loot boxes in video games for their connection to gambling, and there have been some truly ridiculous defenses against that.
For those who aren’t gamers, loot boxes are a concept in gaming that are extremely controversial. They are generally power-ups or cosmetic features that are randomly generated by paying in-game currency. Said currency is usually awarded through play, but can also be purchased with real-world money, something often called micro-transactions.
These loot boxes are beloved by game makers because they provide a steady stream of additional revenue above and beyond the retail price, as well as making money from the re-sell market. In free to play games, they even sort of make sense, although it doesn’t change the fact that they are gambling and possibly predatory. Several countries such as Belgium and The Netherlands have already instituted laws banning them for that reason. The United Kingdom has tracked a rise in problem gambling behavior in young people, and they lay at least some of the blame on loot boxes targeted at children.
YouTuber Jim Sterling has been covering this subject marvelously for years now, and I feel no need to go over ground he has so beautifully trod. Loot boxes are randomized goods in exchange for cash expertly crafted to appeal to the same human impulses a slot machine does, except here they are unregulated and marketed to children. They are bad and need at least some legislation if the industry won’t fix the problem itself.
Many gamers – as I have pointed out before – can be counted on to react like the religious right in response to a moral crisis involving the industry. They can be pathologically defensive of things which are objectively harmful and hide behind concepts like freedom and the market in order to explain away anything that criticizes something that has become core to their identity. Loot boxes as an institution are no different.
However, one truly baffling defense I’ve seen deployed en mass is that loot boxes are comparable to baseball card packets. “Are baseball cards going to be banned now, too?” I’ve seen in many, many comment sections. This is easily the most ridiculous defense of loot boxes yet.
Card collecting has aspects that loot boxes mostly lack. One is that collecting for its own sake is a hobby. It’s actually an important developmental milestone in children. You do see some of that in gaming, but unlike cards or comics the things you are collecting in video games have a definite capitalistic success drive. They often give play advantages or serve as status symbols. Read up on the subject of the “hat economy” in Team Fortress 2 sometime and tell me it doesn’t look more like wealth addiction than a stamp collection.
Second, cards can and should be traded. Games like Pokemon, Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh! are called trading card games for a reason. If I want a particular Magic card, I can find people online willing to trade or sell me that exact card for a price. I can go to a Friday Night Magic event at a local comic store and talk to other players. Sure, some cards are worth literally worth their weight in gold, but the purpose is to get what you want, not a nebulous status boost based on random factors.
I’d love it if games with loot boxes allowed for trades. I play Marvel Strike Force every day. There are lot of characters I have boosts for that I don’t really use and would happily trade to others for if I could level up my Ms. Marvel. Some games do allow trades with some restrictions, but it’s by no means universal.
Topps and Wizards of the Coast are also not trying to ruin their products by forcing people to keep spending money for random prizes. When Monolith caved to pressure and ripped loot boxes out of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, the update made it very clear how much the loot box system was unbalancing a game that people were already paying $60 retail on. It’s a parasitic way to market a game, and you don’t see that in card collecting. There are rares, sure, but companies don’t handicap people for not having them. They don’t have a rule that you can only play with whatever came randomly out of their packages except in tournament play where everyone is on a level playing field immune to buying your way into premium content.
Loot boxes are gambling, and the levels to which some players will go to bat for them even as companies do their best to use them to rip off gamers is astounding. Maybe if they actually operated with integrity like baseball cards or Magic: The Gathering, the feds wouldn't have to be cracking down on them.
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