Taggart’s Take: Gamers May Fall Prey to Industry’s Predatory Practices


Rick Nease/TNS

Borrowing from the free-to-play mobile market, video game developers rely heavily on loot boxes and other microtransaction content to maximize profits. Weary of potential pitfalls, some countries have banned loot boxes categorizing them as online gambling.

We all have our way of decompressing after a long day, be it listening to music, watching a movie, or scrolling through our social media feeds. Another popular choice and my personal favorite is playing video games. In 2016, video game revenue totaled a whopping $24.6 billion. However, not all of the money was generated by the sale of actual games; a large portion of it came and continues to do so, from a much more sinister business model.

A growing trend in the video game industry are games of service. Games of service differ from the typical linear story-based video games in that they don’t offer a definitive ending. A player can’t aspire to “beat the game.”

Rather, instead of creating a game consumers abandon once they’ve completed the narrative arc, the industry took to creating games with downloadable content that will further the gameplay… for a price. It’s a way for developers to extend a game’s shelf life while extracting more of the consumer’s money.

Borrowing from the free-to-play mobile market, game developers increase their profits with the use of a type of microtransaction called loot boxes. Most microtransactions work by offering players the option to purchase in-game items of their choosing, such as armor or weapons, at an in-game store for a small fee.

On the other hand, loot boxes offer players a “chance” to get the item they want, but many times they randomly receive other items of lesser or greater value, depending on the game. The troubling aspect of loot boxes is they strive to coax gamers into blindly buying more items in the hopes of eventually getting what they want.

Paying money for a chance to win something sounds like a vice plaguing millions of Americans, and it’s called gambling. But studies show sufferers of gambling addiction are not just middle-aged men playing the high-stakes tables in Las Vegas; a growing number reside in college dormitories.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 750,000 young American between the ages of 14 to 21 suffer from severe addictive gambling disorder. Forty percent of all gambling addicts begin before the age of 17, and 75 percent of college students openly admit they gambled within the past year. Video game addiction is another growing concern on college campuses.

Given that video game developers are trying new and more creative ways to take money out of our pockets, should we be worried that loot boxes are moving gaming into flat-out gambling?

Well, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the organization responsible for assigning age and content ratings to video games, does not see loot boxes as a problem; rather it equates the practice to “a similar principle to collectible card games.”

“ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling,” an ESRB spokesperson said in an email to Kotaku. “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).”

Meanwhile, gamers in Germany and England started petitions asking their governments to investigate the issue and consider categorizing loot boxes as a form of gambling. Cambridge Labour MP Daniel Zeichner is leading the charge in the U.K.

Three weeks after a 10,000-signature petition was submitted to the British government asking for loot boxes to be viewed as gambling, the government responded.

“The Gambling Commission has strong powers to regulate gambling and is monitoring convergence between gambling and video games closely,” a statement released on Oct. 26 said. “The government is committed to protecting children from harm.”

In China, game developers must disclose the percentage rate an item will drop as an in-game purchase, while other Asian countries banned the use of loot boxes altogether.

When video game developers use predatory methods in line with that of casino slot machines as a means of luring players into spending money, haven’t they gone too far? Does the fallout from loot boxes have to reach the level of the opioid crisis before the ESRB, the video game industry, or even the U.S. government step in to make a change?    

But that’s just my take, what’s yours?