Similarly to the Battlefront 2 situation, the subject of the ethics of loot boxes has been discussed a lot lately. Are they gambling, should you be able to buy them with money, what contents should they contain, what kind of games should be allowed to have them, etc. My view on this is mixed.
Simple Answer? Yes, loot boxes are gambling. You are expending a resource for the chance to gain something of greater personal value. Some people argue that in cases where you can earn loot boxes without buying them invalidates the gambling argument. I disagree. I think that time is also a valuable resource. “Time is money” as the saying goes. If I spend time grinding a game to earn loot boxes or the credits to purchase loot boxes, I am taking time out of other activities to earn the chance to gain something I want. I am gambling time for in game items.
Recently the ESRB ruled that loot boxes are not gambling because you are guaranteed something, even if it’s not what you want, unlike a slot machine where you may come away with nothing. I also think this is a bad argument because if you take it to its logical conclusion, I could create a slot machine that guarantees at least a penny every time you insert a token and place them in locations where gambling is illegal. This is obviously ridiculous.
I also want to briefly mention some similarities between something like a slot machine and a loot box. Every loot box system I have seen is colorful, has exciting sound effects, shiny color coding, etc. You press the button, the box shakes for a moment then explodes into a pile of loot. Often, they don’t even show you what you have immediately until you click on each item to reveal it. When you pull a lever on a slot machine, it plays exciting sound effects as the moving parts spin and flash. They reveal one by one so the anticipation builds with each revelation. Each of these elements come together to trigger dopamine centers and can easily be addicting.
If you agree with me so far, what is the solution? Should randomized reward systems be outlawed in games? Personally, I don’t think that is necessarily the only solution. I think the real problem is that most people don’t see loot boxes as gambling and so don’t know what they’re getting into with them. At the least, any game that has a system like this should declare it on the cover inside the ESRB rating. For example: T for Teen, Violence, Language, Gambling. Then people should be aware of what they are getting. Especially parents who might not want their kids to be engaging in a gambling system.
Some argue that because people can get addicted and self destructive, the system should not be allowed in any game. I can understand this, but I also believe in personal responsibility. As long as an individual knows what they are getting, they should be trusted to make their own decisions. Developers shouldn’t have to treat every member of their audience like a child that needs protecting.
The next question is whether players should be able purchase loot boxes with money or just through in-game actions. This also ties into the question of the loot box contents. In my opinion, purchasable loot boxes can only contain cosmetic items without becoming pay-to-win. If loot boxes can only be earned through in game actions, then it is tolerable that they contain gameplay-altering items, though I, personally, believe that gameplay advantages should only be awarded based on merit and nothing else. I have said before that gaming should be the ultimate meritocracy where every player enters equal and only skill can give you victory.
I think that an important thing to consider when looking at microtransactions in games is why a game might include them. I will use three games to illustrate my view of this: Overwatch, Battlefront 2, and Fortnite Battle Royale.
Fortnite BR is free to play, doesn’t contain advertisements, and all new content that has been added has been free. In late October, Epic Games added a microtransaction system where you purchase V-bucks and use V-bucks to purchase cosmetics. At the moment, this is the only way the game can make money. While it is true that this system is not a loot box system, but instead paying money for currency to buy items directly. It should also be noted that you can earn V-bucks by grinding in the paid PvE mode Save the World, but most players only have the free Battle Royale mode. I think this system is fine because the microtransactions can only lead to cosmetic items and I believe that developers should be able to profit from games they make.
Battlefront 2 is more complicated at the moment since the future of their microtransaction system is uncertain. Currently it is not enabled, so players can only get loot boxes through in game actions. This was not originally true. Previously players could purchase crystals which can be spent for loot boxes. Furthermore, loot boxes in Battlefront 2 contain not just cosmetics, but also gameplay-affecting items. The system, as it was before, was not tolerable. Since players could purchase loot boxes with money which contain gameplay progression items, it was a pay-to-win system on top of a fully priced AAA game.
Overwatch is one of my favorite games, so I will try to be as objective as possible. Overwatch is $60 on Console and $40 on PC. The game includes a loot box system that you can either earn in game or by buying them with money. The boxes only contain cosmetic items but some consider having a microtransaction system in a pay-to-play AAA game is unnecessary and greedy. I can understand that, but since the Overwatch devs are consistently adding content every few months which is free for everyone. I would prefer cosmetic loot boxes that people spend money on to paying for new maps and heroes. Ultimately, I am fine with this system as long as Blizzard continues to support the game.
My thoughts boil down to pay-to-win is never acceptable, but cosmetic purchases are tolerable in games that are either free or are continually supported without paid dlc.