Gaming Loot Boxes: Are They Gambling?


  1. the activity or practice of playing at a game of chance for money or other stakes.
  2. the act or practice of risking the loss of something important by taking a chance or acting recklessly

SgathaichWhile my modern reviews of games have mainly been about the positive experiences we are currently in a very dark time for gaming. I always find the Switch a ray of light in how it completely showed up major figures in the industry with its success.

You will remember in my review of the game Overwatch that there were these objects called loot boxes – a system where when you level up or spend real money you get a set of random objects.

Overwatch this one

Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment)

While with Overwatch the objects were entirely cosmetic it was still a point of contention. Though you would level up early to start with, as you continued to play it got harder to get those loot boxes.  In addition, with limited time events’ items followed by the vast majority of worthless crap you get compared to the desirables – and the fact you have no control over which character you get items for – all this leaves you feeling disappointed. And all the while the option of spending money slowly becomes more appealing, as if that was the intent.

Hearing about how Shadows of War has been totally ruined by loot boxes and how many other games have been implementing them, I watched videos by critics and reviewers online and they refered to them as gambling. And by definition of gambling –  they are right.

I am not here to judge if these loot boxes are gambling because by the above definition, that is true, but then so is a raffle, you are giving money for a random chance.

I am here because back in the 4th generation of Pokemon games they removed the game corner for fears it would breach gambling laws. This was a feature in Pokemon games where you would use money you acquired in game and gain special currency from winning to get exclusive rewards. At no point was real money ever handed over to aid this, nor were you incentivized to take part.

So how is it that this virtual gambling in game would be removed and yet loot boxes which actually contain real elements of gambling are permitted ?

thumbs grips Switch

The loot boxes incentivize gambling by becoming more desirable over time to spend real money.  When you open them there is a flash to give a sense of reward. This also happens  when there is a limited time offer.  You know you can’t get enough freely in the time to get the few objects you want –  instead of the mountain of junk you can – so you are continuously encouraged in loot box games to pay real money.

I decided to look up gambling laws. There was no way I thought these are legal especially since these are games often played by young people.

While looking at the 2005 gambling act I saw something:

“Protecting children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling.” (Gambling Sites)

  • I thought again about the flashing lights from rewards.
  • How over time getting the loot boxes freely becomes harder and harder.
  • How they were inside games many of which were rated for teens and thus under 18 definitely not adults and thus below the minimum legal age for gambling,

There were exceptions to that age however but this is not one of them.

While continuing my research I found this:

“Currently in the UK games that do not enable you to win anything in money or money’s worth fall outside regulation. However the worldwide popularity of some of these games which are constructed be highly interactive, sociable and compelling (particularly where they bear a resemblance to play for real casino games), may ultimately prompt regulators in the UK and elsewhere to regulate.” (Be Gamble Aware)

Sadly it seems that while such things like loot boxes are yet to be classed as gambling it seems to me clear that should they be properly scrutinized and correctly recognized by the industry as gambling and that they are in clear breach of the gambling act.

While writing this the Star Wars game Battlefront 2 was revealed to also contain loot boxes and these ones are even worse than the Shadows of War.  It is a multiplayer game and rather than improving through the game you improve through loot boxes. Even if you play normally the items you get are random and these DO affect game play. So a person who has never played gains a considerable advantage by buying more loot boxes. This is a multiplayer game so you could go online and be taken down by someone with a huge amount of buffs from a loot box that has just acquired it.

This is further a sign of  pushing these boxes into games. Fortunately there has already been a considerable backlash against this and I encourage others to join that backlash against loot boxes like those.

People of late have been demanding the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to correctly label games with loot boxes as gambling. Sadly they have refused to.

“While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.”

Scheme cards

I find this answer foolish and lacks any understanding of the situation. While in a Trading Card Game (TCG)  buying boosters has that element of chance many people say if you want to get the cards you want to just order them online separately. OR if I get cards that I don’t want, I can then trade or sell those cards to people who do want them. None of this can be done with loot boxes. TCGs do not shove it in your face or use the blatant gambling incentives that are used in actual gambling facilities.

It is also a fact that loot boxes are now being thrown at the players much more, holding off content or giving clearly unfair advantages to players who do use them. IF this isn’t stopped soon the game industry will be irreparably damaged.

The ESRB tries to make an argument about the difference between Real gambling which involves using real money and simulated gambling which is when no real money is used. The problem is Loot boxes do use real money.  Some games will make that optional but the moment there is that option it moves from simulated to real gambling. This also should apply to any game where you use a micro transaction to purchase in game currency which is then used to buy loot boxes. That is exactly what poker chips and casinos do –  exchanging a real currency for a fake one to help lose track of money you lose.

Had the ESRB correctly classed loot boxes as gambling then those games would have to be registered for adults which would have greatly damaged the sales both of the game and the use of the loot boxes. It is much easier to influence children and isn’t that the point of the gambling act ?

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