On a recent episode of his podcast, The Verdict, Senator Ted Cruz he voiced his support for the bane of all video gamers’ existences: loot boxes.
Loot boxes are a gambling mechanic that has taken over the industry as a money-making scam. Like a slot machine, they promise big rewards at random. Some games allow players to open loot boxes by paying with real-world currency. Others use in-game currency, which can be earned or bought with real money.
Co-host Michael Knowles read a question from a constituent named Chris asking where Cruz stood on the practice, which has been called gambling by critics and banned in some countries for promoting addictive behavior. Cruz acknowledged that some spaces, including video games, are designed to be addictive before saying he’s something of a gamer himself who had Twitch streamed a game session with Dave Rubin. Then he moved onto the actual question.
“I don’t like it in games when you can buy items and make your character stronger or get advantages,” he said. “But I’ll confess, when I play games, I’ll sometimes buy it because it is more fun when your character has a lot more great stuff that would take six months or a year to build. So sometimes, okay, I’ll spend twenty bucks and buy a treasure chest full of coins so then I can spend them to get cool things in the game.”
Cruz did at least couch his support of loot boxes and pay-to-play mechanics by denouncing the effect it has on minors before saying he doesn’t feel loot boxes should be banned.
“I think it is a greater concern when you’re dealing with kids, when you’re dealing with minors who have the potential to spend a whole lot of money,” he said. “With some of the loot boxes, there is a fair amount of randomness so you can get some great stuff but also some lousy stuff. I guess that’s the argument; it’s gambling. I’m open to having an argument on this, but I approach the issue with a strong libertarian bent. I’d like to not see kids exploited or harmed… but at the same time I’m not sure that the federal government really has a dog in the fight. If people in a video game want to spend money on things in the game, my instincts are probably that might not be a great choice if you’re spending massive amounts of money on games, but I’m not sure that the federal government has a role in preventing you from doing it.”
You can watch the full piece below.
First off, it’s hardly shocking that Cruz is a pay-for-play gamer. He has consistently fought against any sort of systemic leveling of the playing field in real life, too.
“Fifty-five years ago, when my dad was a penniless teenage immigrant, thank God some well-meaning bureaucrat didn’t put his arm around him and say let me take care of you,” said Cruz at the 2012 Republican National Convention. “Let me give you a government check and make you dependent on government. And by the way, don’t bother learning English. That would have been the most destructive thing anyone could have done.”
So it’s no surprise that Cruz has little problem spending extra cash in a game to jump the line when it comes to levels and gear. It's his political ideology in microcosm.
Second, these mechanics are ruining both games and people’s lives. James Stephanie Sterling put together an informative and heartbreaking expose on the human cost of online gambling mechanics that showed people losing their homes and destroying their relationships. Gambling is a disease, like all addictions, and Cruz choosing to frame it as a choice dangerously undermines the cost to society. These mechanics are specifically designed to promote addictive behavior to funnel hundreds or thousands of extra dollars into the developer’s pockets.
Which is why many video games are so broken and grindy these days. Progress is not measured in skill, but in randomized reward. Games progress crawls forward, frustrating the player until they drop a few extra bucks to skip as Cruz does. This is bad enough in free mobile games, but in Triple A titles at a base cost of $70 it’s insulting. Turning games into casinos is one of the many ways the medium is starting to experience a wealth gap that condemns low-income players to drudgery while players like Cruz sail past thanks to their disposable income.
It’s good that Cruz is open to discussing how this affects minors, but it’s pretty clear he doesn’t have a problem with a system that rewards the rich and punishes the poor. As a current Texas gubernatorial candidate put it in 2018, “true to form.”
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.