As anyone with a grasp of general developments in games will know, the use of micro-transactions and other forms of ‘pay for loot’ systems has long drawn ire and served as a particular highlight of what many see as the key issue with profit-driven game development. The chance to pay money for extra in-game features or aesthetics strikes many as simply a way to squeeze extra money from consumers for features that should be included in a $60 dollar game as standard. However, recently community forums have floated the idea that elements of the micro-transaction model, particularly loot boxes and other randomized content distribution methods, are in fact the newest form of gambling akin to that of fixed odds betting machines often found in casinos around the globe, and should be regulated as such.
The developing narrative essentially describes how micro-transactions have outgrown their own label as they now infest a plethora of gaming media far beyond their original domain as an add-on to free-to-play mobile and online MMO titles. While these games did not actually compel you to spend any money, this new generation of ‘macro’ micro-transactions have decided that to spend money on a game isn’t enough, you must now also encourage players to spend money inside the game.
This widening of market exposure has encouraged debate as to whether these practices are an exploitative and insidious method of luring players into a gambling mechanism that will eat up potentially hundreds of dollars in real money for no concrete reward. It is argued that these mechanisms function identically to traditional gambling, you bet your money on the prospect of reward and are encouraged by winning or the instant nature of the process to continue betting. The kicker in the micro-transaction market is that your winning are, for all intents and purposes, worthless (unless you can sell the item on elsewhere) rather than a financial reward that accompanies victory in traditional gambling.
Two main games appear to have galvanized this narrative in the community, Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2. Both games at random intervals will present the player with mystery crates that could have any item, ranging from fairly mediocre to ‘rare’ in-game content. While exploiting human curiosity isn’t itself a bad thing, what becomes worrying is the need to purchase a ‘key’ to discover the contents of the box that has been offered. This is where the link to gambling comes to the forefront, as these items can then be sold on the Valve marketplace for real monetary value. Therefore, a player is betting money on the aforementioned ‘key’ for the chance to win a prize that could potentially lead to financial gain by selling the contents on a separate market. To paraphrase Rick and Morty, that just sounds like gambling with extra steps.
This insidious gambling mechanic has not remained confined to Valve games either. Overwatch drew criticism in a 2016 article on Geek, with author Will Greenwald describing the loot box system as ‘disgusting’. He explained that while the alternate character designs were aesthetically worthy of praise, the fact that they could not be purchased directly, and instead had to be gained through paid (and random) loot boxes, Blizzard was simply trying to wring more money from players who had already put up $60 for the base game. In short, Blizzard won’t accept direct payment for a piece of in-game DLC, but instead forces players to enter a digital casino and throw money at what is essentially a roulette wheel until you get the prize you want. As Greenwald summarized ‘Blizzard won’t accept our money for those extras, not directly. Instead, we’re forced to gamble for the options we want’.
With the UK government poised to clamp down on fixed-odds betting terminals to assuage their impact on deprived communities, it only seems fair to point out some of the glaring similarities between these more mainstream gambling machines and the new digital economies that are appearing to emulate them. In fact, the situation is even more galling in the gaming context. While the gambler in the casino may sink $200 but win $1000, the player sinking that same amount in Overwatch loot boxes will only have a digital feature to show for it. With the prevalence of younger audiences in the gaming market (especially in franchises such as Overwatch), the idea of them becoming familiar with gambling systems at a young age would undoubtedly send a shiver up any parents spine. While gamers often bemoan parental overreaction in the context of games, this time it may just be warranted.