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Loot boxes in games suck, but so does government regulation

In late April, the Belgian government asked that the developers of Overwatch, FIFA 18, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive remove the loot box systems from their games, or else they would face heavy fines and their titles would be removed from the market. This was because the government concluded loot boxes are a form of gambling, which is illegal in Belgium.

Loot boxes, for those who don't know, are small content packs that can be purchased with real money. Their contents are determined by a random number generator, and depending on the game, can contain anything from powerful weapons and armor to low-tier cosmetic items. With almost every loot box system, players have a very low chance of getting good items.

The previously mentioned event in Belgium has led to a broader discussion about whether or not governments around the world should step in and regulate (or even ban) loot boxes, and if they should be considered gambling. Whether or not you believe they are gambling, though, the government intervening for this issue is both dangerous and unnecessary. Here's why.

Opening the floodgates

Though you wouldn't think so initially, the legal ramifications of loot box regulation can run very deep. Not only will several common game mechanics become subject to scrutiny — the way enemies in paid MMO titles drop items, for example — but there could also potentially be real-world side effects. In most of the U.S., you can't gamble until you're 21. Treating loot boxes as gambling from a legal standpoint makes it possible for people under that age threshold to be denied access to a game. Do we really want that?

These two concerns are just the tip of the iceberg. Whether we like it or not, many of the types of games we've grown to love have systems that are quite similar to loot boxes in structure. Because of this, government regulation is incredibly risky. It would be much better for the gaming industry to self-regulate.

We can force change

Many people tend to forget that we've proven we have the power to make loot boxes disappear already. Star Wars: Battlefront II had an incredibly underwhelming launch last year, and the reason why is because of how much of an uproar there was in regards to its loot boxes. This resulted in the removal of them later on.

This proves that we can make developers change their ways with our wallets and that we have no need for the government to step. We as the consumer should have the choice to buy a game or not, even if it has loot boxes. It's our duty as the audience to examine each title and decide whether or not the systems within are unacceptable. If we decide that a company goes too far with a loot box system, we can simply not buy the game. The best way to convince a businessman to change something is to take away his profit.

Government out, consumers in

While state-mandated regulation would effectively nip loot boxes in the bud, it would also come with several large risks to other parts of the industry. By voting with our wallets, we can send a clear message to developers what is and isn't OK — all while keeping the gaming scene free of government intervention.

Your thoughts

What do you think about the discussion surrounding loot boxes? Let me know.

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

56 Comments
  • Yet no one complains about the tax system where your hard earned money is stolen by Government agencies.
  • You vote
  • Seriously? You think you're having a novel idea complaining about taxes? It's a joke to think no one complains about taxes. It's been a complaint since nearly the founding of this country. You're whole premise is laughable.
  • You have no idea how modern economies work if you think taxes are theft.
  • The fact is, if it is gambling (which you could easily make the argument that it is) Than the government has to get involved. You cant have an unlicensed casino, and the same rules should apply across the board.
    Also, a little strange all these articles coming out supporting lootboxes, weird timing.
  • Gambling assumes you make monetary compensation, what are the players winning? We're not in the Oasis yet... #readyplayerone
  • Wrong, gambling is gambling, no matter what the price/reward. Not just money
  • So if the lottery offered a product as a prize it isn't gambling?
  • Exactly, it is pretty much the definition of gambling. You give real money for a slim possibility of getting what you want out of it. Except that in some ways it is worse because:
    - they often target children
    - it is so easy to just keep clicking and rack up thousands of dollars of debt from the comfort of your couch trying to get that one thing you're looking for
    - it is a part of a larger game that you are already invested in, so you feel like you have no choice but to gamble You can have a broader discussion about how if at all gambling should be regulated (personally I'm in the middle ground of allowing it within certain parameters like age limits), but loot boxes are gambling. To claim otherwise because companies in your favourite industry would have to change some of their business model feels dishonest to me.
  • What are your thoughts on trading card games being sold in booster packs? Or baseball cards having been sold in packs for decades?
  • Oh...baseball/hockey cards...! That's a good question! Can't wait to see his answer on that one.
  • They're just as bad.
  • I dont read any support for lootboxes in the article; only that regulating them away comes with consequences that will likely be worse than the problem the regs are trying to solve. Regarding the government having to do something about gambling, the UK has very lax gambling laws. The Belgian government could reduce regulation on gambling. Net immigration to the UK (330K in 2015 [184k EU only] ) would suggest that lax gambling regulation doesn't make a society undesirable.
  • I don’t get why people think I’m defending them. The title’s first words are “loot boxes suck”...
  • Because what's happening in Belgium is a good thing. It's a step forward that will make these companies change or regulate their games.
    When some companies removed loot boxes they had to redesign the game balance so that it doesn't become a crazy grind... The simple fact is that if they break local law, then the government have EVERY right to go after these companies. These companies' priority is to make money for their shareholders not the gamers. At least I believe the government priorities is more to the people than making money for shareholders.
  • I never said Belgium was doing anything wrong. Within their own country’s laws they have the right to do what they want. I’m speaking about the broader markets here. US, UK, etc.
  • The thing is that this very unlikely to work in the US because in the US these major company fund politicians and lobbies specifically so that things like this won't happen.
    But the thing is that is a court deem these to be illegal in the US, people should respect the decision and government should be allowed to apply the law.
    In this case it's deemed illegal so they must respect the law. Within a country's law a government can do what they want whether it's in Belgium, Netherlands or the US, UK...
  • It's like the 80's all over again
  • ITT: People being unaware that they're making the argument booster packs of TCGs or even baseball cards are forms of gambling.
  • They absolutely are gambling, and they're also predatory. But they're tiny tiny markets compared to f2p mobile games and f2p mmos.
  • Ikr, I'd happily see them regulated so kids know exactly what cards they're buying. The current TCG model only benefits leeching companies. Why would anyone defend that?
  • Just because you don't like something doesn't mean it should be illegal. Casino regulation is really there to just make sure the casino doesn't lie about odds, plus simply do to the amount of cash flow, its difficult to *not* involve the government there. I hate loot boxes as much as the next person. But lets take the terrible practice TCGs as an example. There are two ways to fix it. Either A) everyone gets the exact same cards or B) Some cards and/or bundles will cost more than others. A) You remove rarity from the game and moreover remove collectibility. Plus the skill in many tournaments was that you had to win with whatever you randomly got from booster packs. B) You basically say only rich people can get the good cards. Now lets take baseball cards as another example. You either have to remove collectibility from the system (which kills the entire practice) or make it so only rich people will ever have a chance of getting the rarer cards. Neither of your outcomes are really that great. Plus, prove to me that its harmful enough that it should be outlawed like drugs. Because i can tell you if you simply regulate it, they won't go away. They'll just become more annoying. So you have to hope for banning. And yeah, I'd be a fan of them banning loot boxes, but I'm not going to say a law should be passed just to outlaw something I don't care for.
  • The difference there, I guess, is that you have the opportunity to onsell trading cards and potentially earn money back, loot boxes don't offer that luxury. But otherwise yes, they are the same thing. I guess, in that regard, it depends on whether you think the share market is gambling as well.
  • I'm sorry, this is just deeply naïve. Just take a look at what the consequences have been to a hands off approach to f2p MMOs in China, or the use of similar tactics in f2p mobile titles. And if you think there's any sort of room for self regulation or effective consumer pushback in those markets... Well, I dunno what to tell you beyond it's never going to happen. The entire business model of those sectors is predicated on the ability to do loot boxes, and it straight up goes away without them. Without outside intervention, or the credible threat of it, nothing will be done to curb any of the abuses in those types of games. Battlefront is *not* an example you can bring into the discussion and have it mean anything. It's an entirely separate category of game from where the worst of the problem exists. So this comes very much across as, well, it's okay if people prone to gambling addictions get their lives ruined by predatory mobile game companies just so long as the games I like to play don't have any risk of having to adjust to regulations designed to limit very real damage to a vulnerable population. Also, no, there's no legal jeopardy to things like MMO or action rpg loot drops because of gambling classifications, because no money is changing hands, and that's a really important distinction that has been drawn in all of these cases, though places like South Korea are justifiably concerned about those mechanics being deliberately addictive and targeted at children, and have worked to implement things to help limit the amount of time kids can spend playing them.
  • The argument of loot boxes is already ramification from another trend that started long ago; dlc. Where devs and publishers were putting out unfinished products then making you pay for the rest of the game and everyone started doing pre-orders showing the creators that ppl we're going to be dumbas*** that will pay for anything anyway. Well congrats! They took it a step further, just as the gov will. Not having loot boxes in gov hands isn't consumer friendly just as having the control in the suits hands isn't consumer friendly.
  • Loot boxes predate the proliferation of dlc by a good bit. This stuff started in the Asian MMO markets back in the early 2000s. Loot boxes from the very beginning have been designed to work in extremely predatory ways and deliberately be addictive, much in the way that casino slot machines are designed. The version of this that we got in the west was actually dumbed down from what the Asian markets have had to deal with. But it's nothing at all like dlc, where you can make a clear judgment on what the content you're getting is and how much you're going to have to pay for it and whether that's worth it, and it stemmed from a real problem around how costs and income works in game development. Loot boxes on the other hand are designed to obfuscate costs and the games built around them are designed in such a way to inflate the apparent value of what you're receiving through various methods of generating psychological stress so that you spend more money. And they're designed that way because there's a general understanding that the games that use these techniques are not something most of the people who play them are willing to spend money on, but that a very small percentage of people, many of whom are simply vulnerable to the manipulation or gambling addiction in general, will spend very large sums of money on. And it's not a coincidence that both casinos and mobile devs both use the term whales to refer to those people.
  • No offense, but it's incredible how a man that's atleast 10 years older than me can write something like this.
    I completely disagree. Lootboxes are gambling, and it's a cancer that's spreading like crazy. It should be shown no mercy, and should be squashed completely. Nothing good comes out of it.
    As for self-regulation, please don't be silly. That term works almost nowhere. Look at the real world. Here would be no different. Voting with your valet also doesn't work. And as far as I know, EA (known for how 'good' they are since forever) didn't completely remove loot boxes, they just pushed them aside a bit.
  • They did. You can’t buy them anymore in BFII, proving my point.
  • I could mention loads of full price games with loot box, just to kill the single game you mentioned.
    The problem here is that they are trying to make it a norm. If all companies do it, then people would still buy these games. The very reason we're here is because self-regulation hardly works.
  • Self-regulation has hardly been tried. People buy games that have pay to win MTX in them and always have.
  • But most people don't buy it for the microtransactions or to pay more money.
    The whole argument of "vote with your wallet" doesn't work would just buy game based on good marketing.
    And companies will just keep doing the things they do as long as they can get away with it. Always try to push the line even further.
  • but if they buy it and still enjoy it, that means the loot boxes didn't ruin the game. and there's not a problem. and if they buy it and don't like it because of loot boxes, then they're just stupid.
  • Funny how prior to loot boxes RPGs and other loot based games worked just fine. Random loot from enemies is not gambling as I don't pay real money for them in a 1 to 1 transaction. I think the author makes a leap going from loot boxes are gambling to now loot drops.in game will be regulated. These video game makers and publishers want to sell us games so they will figure it out.
  • Of course there are distinctions - the point is that regulation opens the door for possible future action by the government to touch systems that don’t need to be. We should just vote with our wallets instead.
  • So your article is based on speculations about the future? We vote with our wallet when there is a choice not when something is a norm.
  • You're saying its impossible to play and enjoy any video games available without buying loot boxes? that's what you're implying when you say there's no choice.
  • No, I'm saying that we are subjected to constant pressure to spend more money even though we paid full price for it.
    In f2p model gameplay and progression is designed so as to make you spend money through microtransactions. If all you play or all that you EVER played is games like that, then you won't "mind it". But if you played or are playing games without it then it'll will frustrate you.
    At the end it's affecting everyone whether we want it or not. Do you actually WANT microtransactions?
    I'm here fighting against something that bothers me and many other gamers. If you don't mind it, you are here fighting for something that you don't care about. What's the logic in that?
  • Greedy publishers like EA has led to this government intervention, so if everyone gets screwed over because of this, we all know who to blame and boycott their crap.
  • Or, you know, every first party Microsoft developer. Then again, we are talking about publishers, so Microsoft themselves.
  • The culture of governmental intervention and regulation seems to be very different between many European countries and the US. To me this is trivial, it is gambling, so ban it, like we are used to. Another perspective is; who actually pay for this often? I'd take a guess that it's not the people with most resources. This means children and unemployed often sponsor the development of games, and the richest don't pay as much, upside down Robin Hood. Years ago in Norway to finance the voluntary Search and Rescue service at sea, slot machines where used for funding. The majority of people who spent their money where gambling addicts and unemployed, and the SAR rescued rich people in their yachts. Regulation ended this, and the voluntary SAR got back their decency. Some Europeans pay our taxes happily, and think that common rules and regulations aren't all bad.
  • There were various studies a few years back on microtransactions in mobile games. It was a ridiculously low percentage of players paying ridiculously high amounts of money that kept them in business. So, it really was the rich people funding it in most cases. Console games? Eh, I dunno if a study has been done, but I wouldn't be surprised if its similar.
  • Oh, the articles over already. Yeah, sorry, you haven't convinced me at all.
  • Suggesting that regulating loot boxes, which are clearly intended for financial exploitation, could also lead to regulating what monsters/enemies drop after a battle in an MMO is a level of tinfoil hattery that I've never seen before. Did EA or some other loot box favoring publisher pay you to write this article?
  • No, I’m just pointing out that exposing the industry to the world of legal loopholes is a bad idea. Call it tinfoil hattery all you want - little tiny details like this make or break real legal cases about every topic under the sun. And if EA paid me, I’d be saying loot boxes are good, which I’m not.
  • As devil's advocate here there has already been plenty of instances in the past where Judges and Jurys have acted on cases involving technology and gone ahead with rulings without actually understanding what it is they are deciding on, this is definitely another instance where that could be the case. A good lawyer, could use this as precedence in a case regarding loot drops, I don't know exactly how that case would come about (gamer sues because he doesn't get the ultimate loot drop from an end boss?) but it could happen.
  • I'm from the US, and I'd never put it past the government to simply write a rule badly to the point it would be applied elsewhere. Or if they see somewhere they can extract money, you better believe someone will try. I'm not naive enough to assume such innocence from the government.
  • They should enable to you to see what is inside the loot boxes, that will remove the gambling element all together. Plus they cannot be pay to win loot boxes either as that is another form of gambling. I'm aware game developers are under pressure to generate after sales revenue. So I reckon these two rules would prevent government intervention. Personally, I wish many developers shared the mind set of CD Projekt Red and how they approached the Witcher series and it's DLC.
  • The discussion against the corporations on Reddit yesterday was much more insightful than this pro-capitalist drivel. If I had to guess, I'd say you were libertarian.
  • Centrist, actually. Thanks for guessing, though.
  • What a crazy article! It is considered gambling according to the laws of Belgium. That's that. "Treating loot boxes as gambling from a legal standpoint makes it possible for people under that age threshold to be denied access to a game. Do we really want that?"
    Well yes. Why not? If it is considered gambling then kids should not be subjected to it. "Whether we like it or not, many of the types of games we've grown to love have systems that are quite similar to loot boxes in structure. Because of this, government regulation is incredibly risky."
    The main thing is that we as community can't regulate this stuff. Kids are the targets. The simple fact is that should end every argument is that they broke local law. So the government has EVERY right to go after these companies. This article is like saying, children can't gamble in casinos. But if some casinos allows it, the government should not do a thing and just allow the gambling kids to regulate the market.
  • We can’t regulate or we haven’t? The failure of BFII proves that we very much can regulate with our wallets.
  • But the problem is you keep bringing that ONE case. And since it's EA and star wars it just blew out of proportion. There are so many games that still have loot box in full price games. FIFA will still have it and you know why? It's because they can get away with it. They have such a big marketing budget and PES is so far behind they have almost a monopoly in terms of football games. So yeah, they can continue pushing this as far as they want to.
  • Don't like it, don't buy it. You can't make the argument that it won't work when literally no one is trying.
  • Let the free market decide with their wallets.
  • I hate loot boxes, but I can't think of a good reason why they should be illegal, at least in the US. I don't want to get into this "i don't like it, outlaw it," mentality.
  • Because it can be seen as gambling. And these games aren't restricted to adults.