Today, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, stated publicly that the hot new monetization trend in video games, loot boxes, don't qualify as gambling.
Here's what the ESRB told Kotaku in a statement via email:
“ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling. While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.”
This is wrong on many levels. While it's true that, unlike a slot machine, a loot box will always result in some form of a prize, that doesn't change the fact that the simple act of opening loot boxes is incredibly similar to gambling, and taps into all the same parts of the brain.
"The player is basically working for reward by making a series of responses, but the rewards are delivered unpredictably," Dr. Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, told PC Gamer recently. "We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards. Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis."
Psychologists call this "variable rate reinforcement." Essentially, the brain kicks into high gear when you're opening a loot box or pulling the lever on a slot machine or opening a Christmas present because the outcome is uncertain. This is exciting and, for many people, addictive.