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Gaming and Gambling: The Problem with Loot boxes

Gambling is a big issue in the UK with over 400,000 problem gamblers according to the Gambling Commission. Commonly, gambling is pictured as slot machines, race betting and so on, but now it’s becoming more prevalent in a new medium: gaming.

Catherine Sweet, Head of Marketing and Communications at GamCare describes gambling as: “Gambling is playing games of chance in order to win money or a prize – staking money that you will be able to predict an outcome.”

The issue of gambling in video games first became apparent in 2018 when European regulators questioned whether loot boxes are a form of gambling.

Loot boxes are digital packs or ‘boxes’ that contain items for use in game – these can range from simple cosmetic items to more valuable items like weapons and armour.

Each pack is random – you can never guarantee what you are going to get and the odds of finding a rare item are set by the game makers and developers themselves.

Often, they enable players to enhance their gameplay and obtain items quicker but they come with a cost, real world money.

Quake Champions – id Software/Bethesda Softworks

When did the issues of Loot Boxes start?

Loot boxes first came about around 2004 and were often seen in free to play games but have now started to infiltrate full priced titles.

A key controversy was that of Middle- Earth: Shadow of War the second game in the series, released in October 2017.

Following a good response for their first game Monolith Productions decided for Shadow of War that they wold make unlocking the games true ending a large, unnecessarily time-consuming grind.

To combat this the developers gave players the option of loot boxes and micro transactions at every turn often ruining immersion.

It caused such an uproar that they were forced to patch out the in-game store and loot box system in July 2018.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War – Monolith Productions/Warner Bros.

Little did many gamers know this was just the beginning.

Next game the big one, a franchise that many children and adults alike adore – Star Wars.

Star Wars: Battlefront II was released in November 2017 another game coming off the back of a successful initial game.

The issue here was the implementation of the loot boxes with players being able to pay to have an upper hand on the battlefield.

Star Wars: Battlefront II – EA DICE

This was when battlefront really started to raise eyebrows and people started to see their loot boxes as a form of gambling.

What’s worse this controversy arose when Battlefront 2 was in its early access stage and again after backlash it caused EA to remove microtransactions right before the main, public launch.

It was the high-profile status of the Star Wars brand and its connection with Disney that meant this controversy was pushed into the mainstream media causing various countries to take note.

The controversy surrounding Star Wars: Battlefront II caught the attention of U.S. Congress for what it saw as ‘predatory tactics’.

Its response to a players criticisms on Reddit has the most down votes of any comment seen on the site.

Screen Shot 2019-01-03 at 13.41.58.png
EA’s infamous Reddit response

Assassins Creed Odyssey has also seen criticism for implementing microtransactions with players expressing their issues with the slow levelling system and high upgrade costs, Ubisoft sought to fix this by allowing players to pay for a permanent XP boost and upgrade packs.

Whilst this has prompted many to simply not pick up the game the developers have implemented a system whereby getting to a higher mercenary rank cuts upgrade costs by 50%, there has been no amendments to XP yet.

So, what are countries stance on Loot Boxes?

Whilst the UK states that loot boxes are not a form of gambling many other countries do.

One of which being Belgium which prompted Blizzard to pull loot boxes from Overwatch, whilst EA refused to do so.

Belgium even went as far as to announce a criminal investigation EA for continuing to use a loot box system in FIFA 19.

FIFA 19 – EA Sports

The Netherlands also declared that loot boxes violate their national gambling laws and therefore banned the practice.

Blizzard has also had to tweak its loot box system to be in conjunction with Chinas revised laws in that the odds must always be displayed.

The Australian Senate even passed a motion to investigate whether loot boxes are a form of gambling and if they are appropriate for younger players.

It found that loot boxes in 45% of the 22 games it analysed met criteria to be considered gambling even those seen in games rated appropriate for adolescent players who are of course under the age of consent for gambling.

A big issue here is that games like Overwatch among others have a player base that include children and has an ESRB rating of ‘Teen’ and any changes to the law could seriously affect the sales of these games.

Overwatch – Blizzard

Catherine Sweet from GamCare also touched on this saying: “Recent research has highlighted that video game rewards such as loot boxes are psychologically similar to gambling.

“Unlicensed websites can also offer unregulated gambling activities connected to video games, including those which have little or no age verification in place.

“Here, young people who are not old enough to gamble can potentially bet on skins and much more worth substantial sums of money.

“Parents often have no clue that this type of betting even exists, and may be paying for their child to gamble without realising as charges usually show up as transactions on gaming accounts.”

There is an interesting argument here that game developers themselves need to ‘self-regulate’ concerning loot boxes and micro transactions otherwise we could see more lawmakers and governments stepping in and taking action themselves.

Assassins Creed Odyssey – Ubisoft Quebec/Ubisoft

Entertainment Software Association which runs E3 stands by self-regulation too alongside IGDA’s Jen MacLean urging the gaming industry to help avoid government intervention by addressing the issues themselves.

It’s gotten to the point now where developers love to highlight the fact they aren’t using loot boxes in full priced games as if gamers are supposed to be rejoiced at the fact they no longer have to see advertisements to buy more stuff after playing the game – seen comically with the Battlefield developers, DICE at E3 2018.

Players feel they are being taken for fools and with the increasing number of video games using loot boxes and micro transactions they have started to pushback with 2018 really being a key year for the consumer to voice their growing concerns over the industry.

When Gambling Becomes a Problem

As Catherine Sweet, Head of Marketing and Communications at GamCare says: “For many people gambling is not a harmful activity, but for some it can become a serious problem and they will continue to gamble negative consequences this causes in their life.

“Some of the most common harms we encounter are financial harm, harm to mental health such as anxiety or stress, relationship difficulties or breakdown, isolation and problems with work or housing.”


Looking at the risk involving young people and gambling she said: “As with any other risk-based activity, young people may be more vulnerable if they do not properly understand the risks associated with gambling or gambling-style games.

“It is important to educate young people to think critically about gambling, and to help them understand what problem gambling looks like, to prevent gambling becoming an issue in later life.”

 Looking to The Future

With the controversy and pushback from players this year has hopefully made an impact on the industry and at least meant that developers are more cautious but also clearer about loot boxes.

However, we’ve already seen one of this year’s most popular games – Red Dead Redemption 2 come under heavy fire for its use of microtransactions and broken gold system in its multiplayer in the open beta (so theres still time for it to be fixed).

Red Dead Redemption 2 – Rockstar

The unfortunate thing is that micro transactions are still a profitable system and bring in a stream of cash for an extended period of time.

Only time will tell and it’s up to developers to head the concerns of its consumers and themselves to self-regulate and tackle the problem how they do so is yet to be seen in 2019.

Need Help?

GamCare operates the National Gambling HelpLine, providing information, advice and support for anyone affected by problem gambling. Advisers are available seven days a week from 8am – Midnight on Freephone 0808 8020 133 or via web chat at www.gamcare.org.uk.

GamCare also offers a range of free treatment across England, Scotland and Wales, as well as a moderated Forum so that people can speak to others experiencing similar issues and seek support.

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