Just a few weeks ago, Belgium’s Gambling Committee took up the most controversial gaming question of the season: are loot boxes gambling? Yes, they said.
Loot boxes are, in short, virtual boxes with random contents that you purchase through video games with real money. They contain everything from virtual cosmetic items to power-ups to gear that can dramatically alter your chances of winning the game. Rarer items, of course, show up in loot boxes far less often. The rush of buying them and rolling the dice on their contents has been likened to the psychological sensation one feels when gambling. That gets even more unsettling when you consider how many underage people play these games, and how much they spend; my own younger sibling, a few years ago, drained $400 from my bank account on Xbox Live purchases.
The debate over loot boxes has been one of the most divisive and furious that gaming has seen in years, and certainly one of the most important stories for the industry in 2017. Billions of dollars are on the line here — especially as legislators and regulators in more countries have started to speak up.
Hawaiian state representative Chris Lee recently held a press conference where he characterized loot boxes as “predatory gaming,” and is working on legislation to ban minors from buying them. He later added in a Reddit post that “these kinds of loot boxes and microtransactions are explicitly designed to prey upon and exploit human psychology in the same way casino games are so designed.” In Australia, a regulator for the state of Victoria agreed that “what occurs with ‘loot boxes’ does constitute gambling” and that the regulatory body for gaming was "engaging with interstate and international counterparts" on policy changes.