June 18, 2019 | 72° F

KEVETT: Loot boxes in video games raise questions

Pull the lever, roll the dice, play the odds. Video game loot boxes are the newest and most accessible form of gambling to date, and they have taken over the gaming community by storm. There are many advocates for and against loot boxes, but the majority of consumers seem to be perfectly happy spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on virtual gambling.

Loot boxes are used by video game developers to provide a steady stream of income for the constant development of their products, a majority of which are online-multiplayer-based games. Loot boxes are usually optional, and they can only be bought with real money. These boxes typically give players decorative items for in-game use. Game publisher Electronic Arts has in the past made loot boxes for its games, which rewarded players with unfair in-game advantages and abilities, but its ideas were unpopular in the international gaming community. The concept for loot boxes is simple: A player spends a dollar or two and receives a key to unlock a virtual box. When the box is opened, the player receives a random cosmetic “skin” to use in the game. Some skins are more common to receive than others, creating a scenario where the player feels the urge to continuously purchase loot boxes until they have the cosmetic item they desire. For example, in the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the odds of unboxing a knife, which is the rarest item category in the game, are just 0.44 percent from 2,000 box openings. Even with those odds, it would be impossible to unbox the exact knife you want.

Skins sometimes have a real dollar value attached to their rarity for trade between players. The rarest gun skin in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive goes for a whopping $1,550! For perspective, the actual game itself only costs $15. Players usually cannot buy a skin directly from the game, but can purchase one through community markets from fellow players. A game’s developers may take a cut of each player-to-player skin sale. There is no age limit as to whom can spend money on loot boxes, and children frequently fall victim to the addictive nature of the system. Buying loot boxes is about the same as going to a casino and gambling — the only differences are the rewards and the laws surrounding each.

Loot boxes do have some positive aspects to them for the consumer and likewise for the developer. Loot boxes help keep many large online games afloat as they serve as a steady stream of revenue, enabling developers the ability to create new and fresh content. Games like Fortnite, which does not have a loot box system but allows players to purchase skins for varying prices on their official store, are entirely run on income from skin sales. Fortnite itself is free to play, and it receives constant content updates to keep its gameplay fun and exciting. This type of game development is very different from the way games were created in the past. Developers used to work with a budget and a game was finished forever once its initial build was released publicly. Because of paid skins and loot boxes, games like Fortnite are forever being tweaked, balanced and made to be more entertaining. For gamers with self-control, this system is a dream scenario as long as developers do not become greedy. If gambling is something one falls prey to easily, this system may seem predatory.

Loot boxes have quite a lot of negativity and controversy surrounding them. I am definitely not a lawyer, but my common sense tells me that it is illegal in one form or another to sell loot boxes in their present state to children. Children do not have the ability to handle compulsive urges and gambling on loot boxes can add up quickly. Websites have recently sprung up that allow users to bet skins on professional video game team matches, like sports betting. Anyone can access these third party websites, creating a haven for illegal internet gambling. The Netherlands just recently made a move to ban loot boxes altogether, and many other countries are likely soon to follow suit.

Loot boxes are quite a radical new concept for how the development of a game and its revenue stream are maintained, but they come with a lot of controversy. Ethically speaking, loot boxes in their current state are not a healthy game mechanic. There are many things wrong with loot boxes, but they have revolutionized how entertainment as a whole can be created and sold. I personally purchase a loot box or a skin here and there for my favorite games, but it is by no means an addiction. Restrictions need to be put into place to somehow bar children access to purchasing loot boxes. An outright ban on loot boxes is shortsighted. As long as loot boxes are going to be around, people will purchase them. People want to stand out and look special in their favorite games. Who knows what types of entertainment are possible in the future with the help of loot boxes?

Mitchell Kevett is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in history and minoring in political science. His column, "Gamer Next Door," runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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Mitchell Kevett

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