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Surprise! It's a loot box

Posted on 04 July 2019 by Shiyi

Loot boxes - fun part of a game or gambling in disguise?

In our office we talk to young people a lot about how we classify films and other content like games. Those who are into gaming often ask me about loot boxes and how we classify them. It’s tricky because in New Zealand loot boxes don’t constitute gambling.

Right now there's quite a bit of interest in loot boxes after members of the industry defended its actions by saying that they were not ‘loot boxes’ but 'surprise mechanics'. Some players found that ridiculous.

I’ve written before about loot boxes. But in short, loot boxes are virtual items that contain special randomised items that you can use in a game. The items are things like a new outfit for your character or new players for your football team. You get an adrenaline rush when you open a box and get a long sought after item, but often you don’t get what you want and have to keep trying.

Let’s say you play Overwatch. You play some matches online and level up your player profile, earning you a loot box. A triumphant noise plays and a large yellow box at the bottom of the screen tells you that you’ve earned a loot box. Yay - the new Academy D.Va skin you want might be in this loot box. You click through to open it. A loot box slams down from above with a resounding thud. The box glows on your screen for a second as you click the ‘open loot box’ button. The box shakes, and then coloured metal discs burst from the box, and you hold your breath while they land onto the ground. A streak of yellow tells you that one of the items is legendary...

An animated image of a loot box from videogame Overwatch being opened

Bad luck! The prize is a legendary skin you already have. No Academy D.Va skin for you.

So what's the problem?

Recent research has come up with some interesting findings.

Image of FIFA loot boxes with Kinder Surprise Eggs superimposed over them

Since the last time we talked about loot boxes there’s been some changes around the world.

It's not just at Government level. The industry has changed some of its practices. Many larger mainstream developers in the area have moved away from loot box models for making money.

Many mobile games still use loot box mechanics. The law doesn’t cover most of these games as they are only provided on a digital form, rather than physically. It’s an odd part of the law which was made before the internet.

Image of gaming machines with pink-and-blue lighting

"It's not gambling"

Most adults who play games consider loot boxes a form of gambling, and many consider them exploitative and dodgy.

Games publisher Electronic Arts promoted upcoming single-player action game Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order by promising that the game wouldn’t have loot boxes in it.

So it’s not surprising that Electronic Arts decided to call loot boxes ‘surprise mechanics’. The name ‘surprise mechanics’ distances loot boxes from the negative baggage they've gained. It links loot boxes with collectible card packs and Kinder Surprise-style toys.

The differences between loot boxes and these other games and toys are pretty obvious. Card packs don’t have bright, colourful, and attractive animations and sound effects that play and when you buy them – this is more similar to a pokie machine.

There is no way of earning free Kinder Surprises to get you started – but giving players free credit is common practice in casinos.

You don't see card packs and Kinder Surprise eggs advertised everywhere and they aren’t always available, like they are on the title screens of some videogames.

The scarcity of items you want from a loot box, with some only being available for a limited time, goes beyond even casino gambling to increase the perceived value of items.

Whatever we call loot boxes, or whether we define them as gambling or not, the actual behaviour that worries people is still the same.

Worrying about names shouldn't get in the way of having an informed and clear discussion.

This is a topic that matters to people who play games. I'll keep you in the loop on this topic and let you know about changes happening around the world.

Shiyi works at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

Image of pokie machines with bright lights


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