Risks and Rewards: The Psychology Behind Loot Box Mechanics

There remains no doubt that 2017 was a year in which the lines between certain video game mechanics and gambling became rather blurred. A development contributing to this has been the growth of loot boxes – a controversial feature of some of last year’s most highly anticipated video games, which, some argue, resemble gambling.

Loot boxes contain a number of items of different quality and value to the player. These boxes can be opened with in-game currency which can be earned through playtime (which could take dozens, if not hundreds of hours) or bought with real-world money. As the contents can be either wonderful or completely worthless, loot boxes are a lottery. It is true that loot boxes are not entirely new. Similar in-game payments, for example, are a regular feature of smartphone games that are initially free-to-play, such as Clash of Clans and Candy Crush. But unlike free-to-play games, loot boxes are being introduced in games that already sell at a retail price of around £50.

One concern about loot boxes is how they affect fair play. The items could provide a player with an advantage over others which in turn results in a competitive imbalance. A player, for instance, who spends £100 for the random chance to acquire high ability items, gains an advantage over another player unless the other player spends some of his or her own money. This in gaming terms is known as pay-to-win. This is precisely what occurred with gaming giant Electronic Arts (EA) release of Star Wars Battlefront II last year. The controversy over loot boxes subsequently made them temporarily pullback.

But perhaps a greater concern about loot boxes, being voiced by parents, regulatory bodies and some gamers themselves, is that loot boxes may be addictive. Care needs to be taken by developers to avoid turning ‘players into payers’. Moreover, since the introduction of loot boxes within games like Star Wars Battlefront II and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, some believe that gambling concerns are heightened in games that feature loot boxes that are aimed at children. Many psychologists agree that loot boxes and slot machines use comparable tactics. In an article in CBC News, an expert in people’s addiction to technology claimed, that loot boxes are ‘literally’ a slot machine in so far as they both share ‘the same basic fundamental behaviour pattern’. The expert continues by saying, ‘when people cannot predict how much they’re going to get, they often get very focused and fixated on it, and want to do it over and over again, past the point of rationality.’ At a closer look it isn’t difficult to see the similarities in their design. The loot box interface is designed both visually and audibly to create player anticipation, excitement and heighten the appeal of opening them. Additionally, another psychologist highlighted the way in which buying in-game currency is vital in getting a player to ultimately spend more real-world money, which is not dissimilar to casino tokens.

For those who wonder whether loot boxes can be easily avoided, it is worth remembering that the feeling of anticipation and maximising excitement is engineered in the design animation when opening loot boxes. For example, the art director on Hearthstone, a free-to-play game which features loot boxes, told pcgamer that ‘anticipation has always been a key point in games in general; successful games build on anticipation and release, whether a set of effects or in gameplay.’

So what to do? The UK Gambling Commission recently clarified their position on loot boxes, stating that although loot boxes did not fit the legal definition of gambling, they understood that parents were not simply willing to allow their children to play games which present a potential risk to them. Pressure has amounted in the form of a petition which aims to make gambling laws include gambling in video games, and specifically those ‘which target children’. The Government has responded, aligning their position alongside the UK Gambling Commission, stating that ‘the Gambling Commission is committed to working with the video game industry to prevent gambling-related harm related to their platforms’.

Prevention work remains one area where more can be done. Demos’ pilot with GambleAware seems a sensible start. The project saw a number of schools pilot a set of resources on gambling and risk-taking behaviour in year 10 PSHE lessons. The results show promise, and will be published tomorrow. Another vital part of reducing the risk of harm to children is for developers to disclose the probabilities of loot boxes that feature in their games. Such a regulatory measure could reduce the level of anticipation and excitement of opening them. Indeed, gaming developers in China are now required to do this. Furthermore, in 2012, South Korea introduced a law which intended to deal with video game addiction, which would require major gaming companies to add features that let parents limit how long their children can play the video game.

Whichever route the UK Gambling Commission take on this issue, it is of key importance to note that loot boxes have a robust capacity to manipulate the behaviour of the player with the aim to extract ever increasing money from them in order to increase the lifetime revenue of the product. However, with the practice becoming ever more common in games aimed at children, in the end, it seems that those concerned will continue to push back against in-game activities which resemble gambling, with the aim to regulate the controversial practice.