Are Loot Boxes in Video Games Gambling?

If you're interested in gambling or video games, you've probably seen this question posed before — today on the blog we're diving into the age-old issue of loot boxes in video games, and whether they should be seen as gambling (or not).

Pop Culture

If you haven’t heard of the discourse regarding loot boxes in video games, buckle up, because it’s a doozy! (And also, where have you been?)

Loot boxes can be found in plenty of games on different platforms. The idea is that you pay real money (or with game credits, that you purchase with real money) to open these “boxes” and receive a surprise gift that may or may not be equal to the amount of real-life money you spent on the box. The surprise can be anything from a rare weapon, an outfit for your character, or other supplies that may help you progress in the game.

A new study carried out by Dr. James Close (University of Plymouth) and Dr. Joanne Lloyd (University of Wolverhampton) looks at the similarities between in-game video game purchases and gambling. The researchers aimed to determine if there were links between loot boxes and problem gambling and if loot boxes are putting children and youth at risk of developing a gambling addiction later in life.

Loot boxes usually appear in free-to-play games that entice the player by being free, and gain revenue through in-game purchases, though they also appear in games that you have to buy. The first appearance was in the Japanese version of MapleStory in 2004, and now they appear in plenty of games like Fortnite and FarmVille. 

Since being introduced into vastly popular games, several countries have started to look into loot boxes and gambling. Japan and Belgium have declared loot boxes illegal, and China now requires game developers to disclose the potential contents of the loot box and what your chances are of getting each item. 

loot box vs gambling timeline infographic

Perhaps the biggest loot box controversy to date was in 2017 when EA released the long-awaited Star Wars Battlefront II with the unwanted addition of a “pay to win” loot box system. The system forced players to spend large amounts of money in order to progress in the game or grind for days on end to get free boxes.

The gaming community was very vocal about their distaste toward this addition, and the whole debacle caused EA’s stock to fall 8%. It gathered the attention of other game developers, who learned from EA’s mistake and removed similar mechanics from their games, and politicians, who began to push for the banning of loot boxes.

Do Loot Boxes Contribute to Problem Gambling?

Dr. Close and Dr. Lloyd’s study states that in around a dozen studies, the relationships between loot box purchasing and problem gambling have been “robustly verified”. One of the studies they reference compared the amount spend on loot boxes per month with where survey respondents landed on the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI). It found that people who scored higher on the PGSI tend to spend more money per month on loot boxes and some other microtransactions.

Now, as for whether they cause problem gambling, the answer is unclear. No formal surveys have been done to gather this information, and honestly, I don’t think there’s a way to definitely prove or disprove this claim. However, most of the studies Dr. Close and Dr. Lloyd examined found a correlation between the two behaviors psychologically. 

The biggest problem seems to be that the target audience for many games that include loot boxes are children under the age of 18, who are more impressionable than adults. If children get hooked on the “pay to win” concept, will they be more likely to develop gambling problems once they’re old enough to gamble?

Epic Games Settlement

Even after removing the blind-draw llama loot boxes from Fortnite’s Save the World mode, Epic Games continued to be the subject of lawsuits over the loot boxes. Parents of underage players called the mechanic “predatory” and accused Epic Games of designing Save the World to make it difficult for players to progress in the game without spending money on loot boxes. 

Epic Games denied the allegations against them, but reached a class action settlement in an attempt to save face: if you live in the United States and “exchanged in-game virtual currency for any in-game benefit, or made a purchase of virtual currency or other in-game benefits for use within Fortnite or Rocket League” between July 1st, 2015 and February 25th, 2021, you will be awarded 1,000 Fortnite V-Bucks, which is about $8 worth of virtual currency.

Fortnite and Rocket League players were notified of this settlement by email, with many being led to believe that it was a scam because of the way the email was formatted. Players took to Reddit to express their confusion, speculating that the email was made to look sketchy on purpose so people wouldn’t file a claim for a real money refund. 

Are Loot Boxes Considered Gambling?

Definition-wise, yes, loot boxes could be considered a form of gambling. Dr. Close and Dr. Lloyd brought up the fact that the origins of loot boxes have a lot in common with the crank-and-pull of early slot machines. In both cases, you pay an amount of money for the chance to win a prize. Neither requires skill to win, the outcome of each is supposed to be entirely based on chance and luck.

However, most loot boxes in video games will give you some sort of prize, even if it’s not the grand prize of a super rare or valuable item. Slot machines don’t reward you for every spin, so you could make the argument that because of this difference, loot boxes are not a form of gambling, but rather they use gambling techniques to entice players to buy them.

EA compares loot boxes to surprise toys like Kinder Eggs and Hatchimals, and many others have compared them to baseball or Pokemon cards, settling on the viewpoint that because of the similarities to these child-friendly toys, loot boxes cannot be a form of gambling.

Gambling is supposed to be fun, not stressful. If you think you may be struggling with a gambling problem, there are numerous resources available free of charge. Check out our page on gambling addiction for more info.

Cliff Spiller

Cliff Spiller is a veteran casino writer with decades of experience writing online casino reviews and game guides. His betting strategy articles, and gambling news updates have been a fixture in the industry since 2004.

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