I’m going to write about loot boxes one more time, so I hope you will indulge me. I’ve had some interesting conversations over the last couple of days, and it has raised some questions that I’d like to explore. I’m not going to go into great detail on my stance as to whether or not loot boxes should be considered gambling (I talk here about how they shouldn’t,) because I really don’t think that’s the motivation at work here.
I’ve been grappling with a simple question over the last couple of days. As I read tweet after tweet after article after reddit post about how video game loot boxes need to be classified as gambling and that the government needs to step in to regulate this kind of business practice, the question “what is your endgame, here?” rattles around in my head. Do we, as gamers, really want greater regulation in our hobby, simply because we don’t like loot boxes? I hate to use the “slippery slope” argument, but I can’t help but wonder if we really want to set a precedent that we will accept (or even welcome) a greater degree of regulation and intervention in the way we purchase and enjoy our hobbies. I’m sure that isn’t what we want, so what do we really mean when we claim that loot boxes should be an outlawed business practice?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and propose that we don’t want to get rid of loot boxes because they’re gambling: we want to get rid of them because we don’t like micro transactions. There’s a flaw in the thinking, however: Everyone seems to be assuming that if loot boxes are suddenly regulated, that the micro transaction infestation will, in some way, disappear from games. I find this idea to be incredibly naive. I hate to sound negative, but if loot boxes as we know them become no longer viable, AAA game companies will come up with another system that is close enough to be as lucrative, while remaining on the right side of legal. It’s too late to put that genie back in the bottle, and frankly, the vast majority of gamers seem to be okay with loot boxes. Sales have not, to my knowledge, been significantly harmed by the increased presence of micro transactions, and so the gaming public has already voted with their wallets.
I say too late, because there was a point when the general gaming public had a chance to reject loot boxes. Overwatch launched about 16 months ago to much applause and a little bit of controversy. The loot box system so heavily entrenched in the game did cause some criticism from certain gamers and personalities. The debate was relatively short-lived, however, and most video game consumers and commenters tolerated, if not outright praised, the micro transaction loot boxes of Overwatch as being well implemented and even pro consumer. Surprise surprise, almost two years later they’re being rolled out into every game possible.
I think it’s time to be honest about our motivations for disliking loot boxes. I might ruffle some feathers here, but I don’t buy the idea that your average youtuber, gamer, redditor, or twitter user actually cares that loot boxes might constitute gambling, and that children are being exposed to it. These are the same people who were gleefully opening loot boxes in Overwatch for the last year, without a care for the implications. It’s only now that the AAA sphere has rolled them out across all platforms that gamers are becoming sick of them, and now they need an angle for their outrage. It sounds so much better to say “think of the children” than it is to say “I was wrong, I don’t actually like these anymore.” It’s a nice notion, and it certainly grabs more attention, but I simply don’t believe it.
The cult of personality is strong. These days we seem to have a lot of popular personalities calling for the banning of loot boxes (even those who praised them 16 months ago,) and it is tempting to answer the call. I would advise that you don’t, because it’s a dishonest cause with little hope of actually changing any laws. As always, it really comes down to the choice of supporting the game or not. We’re great at sabre-rattling in the gaming community, but when push comes to shove we tend to just pony up and buy the things anyway. There are plenty of games that don’t have loot boxes, and I suggest you buy those instead.