Are ‘loot boxes’ in video games too much like gambling? Ratings board does not think so

  • YouTuber John Bain called on ratings board to take action
  • Increasing concerns over young people accessing game gambling

Modern video games which include paid-for loot boxes could be exposing young players to gambling risks, popular gaming YouTuber John Bain has warned.

Loot boxes have come under fire for their alleged gambling qualities. But the ratings board does not agree.
Loot boxes have come under fire for their alleged gambling qualities. But the ratings board does not agree.

Games which are rated for teens and younger children often include an option to pay real money for the chance to win in-game items, and this very modern form of monetizing additional content is falling through a regulation gap in the US and Europe.

Only a handful of Asian nations have classed loot boxes as gambling, though the US has considered legislating skin gambling: an industry fueled by loot box buys.

However, so far, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which decides which gaming content is appropriate for different aged audiences, doesn’t see a problem.

Gambling element enters video gaming

In many of today’s video games, players find items they need within the game world, such as weapons, health and money.

However, better items might be restricted to players who pay for them. Mobile games often use this model: they provide a free basic game but in order to have a better experience and unlock more items, the player must pay for boxes of items – a model known as ‘freemium’ play.

In recent years, console and computer games have started including loot box purchases.

EA, Microsoft and Bungie have all released titles which give players a chance to buy in-game items. However, a gambling element is often included. The player usually does not know what their box will contain. They could receive items of high or low value, and may need to make several purchases to achieve the random outcome they hoped for.

Skin gambling and loot boxes

The debate ties in with the controversy over skin gambling. Skins are virtual game items, such as weapons and clothing, or even just a paint job for an existing in-game weapon.

They are coveted by gamers who see them as a status symbol, and they might come with certain advantages. A camouflage skin on a sniper rifle will help the player stay hidden when taking their shot, for example.

A system of trading has therefore developed, with players using third party gambling sites to pit their own skins against those of other players, or of the site itself.

Players might buy several loot boxes within the game, then gamble the loot they scored to try and improve their haul. While the items being wagered and bartered have no real monetary value, gamers put a price of thousands of dollars on the most desirable items.

Regulation concerns as market goes unchecked

China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore have all taken action to regulate skin gambling and loot box trading.

Games which include a loot box element need a gambling license, and the industry is closely regulated. Skin gambling is also classed as a legitimate gambling activity.

The UK is currently considering regulation of skin gambling and loot boxes, with a review by the UK Gambling Commission ongoing as of August 2017.

However, some gamers and industry insiders have called out the United States for lagging behind when it comes to regulation.

Skin gambling is not prohibited as a betting activity and loot boxes can be traded within video games. However, some operators such as Blizzard and Riot have moved to offer loot boxes purchased with in-game virtual currency, not real money, to avoid falling foul of trading and betting laws.

Concerns over young people’s exposure to gambling

While skin gambling is not seen to pose a risk to adults in the gambling community, there are concerns that this cash-for-items element is available in games young teenagers may play. YouTube personality John Bain, aka Total Biscuit, warned that the upcoming Star Wars Battlefield II game allows real money gambling for loot boxes – but will be released with a Teen rating.

The game streamer has called on the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to reconsider its classification of games that include pay-to-win gambling, so only a mature audience can access them.

The star also called out game developers who do not release their loot box odds, arguing that adults who play such games deserve clarity on the chance of receiving a decent item when they shell out for a loot box.

The response from the ESRB

The ESRB told Kokatu that loot boxes are not gambling, because the player always received some sort of item of value.

Because the player always received something, it was likened to buying collectible cards, where some packs will contain more valuable cards than others.

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