Are Loot Box Systems In Gaming Similar To Gambling?

Over the past few weeks, a number of highly-anticipated titles, such as Forza Motorsport 7, Middle Earth: Shadow of War and Star Wars Battlefront 2, have been released with or have been confirmed to contain game-altering loot boxes.

The news of so many big-name titles containing loot box systems in their games so soon one after the other has had the gaming community in quite a bit of a frenzy as of late for a number of reasons as it becomes increasingly apparent that loot box mechanics may soon be a rather normal aspect in modern video games.

The one very interesting area of debate that this whole loot box system debacle has brought about is its comparisons to real-life gambling – something that we have not really seen with other microtransaction systems.

Instead of directly purchasing a specific piece of content (for example, a character, weapon or piece of equipment), the loot box microtransaction system gives players a CHANCE of perhaps obtaining this specific piece of content if they are lucky.

So, are loot box systems in gaming similar to real-world gambling?

In order to answer this question, it may be important to look at exactly why people generally get so angry about microtransactions within video games overall and then analyse the loot box system in particular and determine whether it may actually affect the brain’s internal reward system in a very similar manner to gambling.

Why Do People Generally Tend To Get So Angry About Microtransactions In Video Games?

The most obvious and commonly cited reason as to why many gamers hate microtransactions in fully priced games is that it automatically shows that the developers or publishers of the game in question want consumers to spend more money on a game that they have already paid for.

Pay to win

Pay-to-win at its finest!

It may be important to note though that most gamers, however, don’t just blindly hate microtransactions.

A lot of people do not mind the overall idea of a microtransaction system being in a game that you paid for (as much) if it does not in any way impact the gameplay of a particular title (for example, the rewards are cosmetic) or if they occur in a free-to-play game, where this income may be required.

Arguably, however, the biggest concern with regards to any game having a microtransaction system is that of whether the title’s mechanics will be purposely altered to create situations in which the player is pushed towards investing in microtransactions just to properly enjoy it.


Middle Earth: Shadow of War. (Credit: Monolith Productions)

For example, Middle Earth: Shadow of War received a lot of negative press when it was first revealed that the game would contain a loot box system, particularly because it is a full priced action-adventure single-player game; the type of title that one hardly ever sees microtransactions in because there is often no need for them – unless gameplay is altered.

Many reviews of Shadow of War have placed some focus on the debate of whether the game’s final ending has purposely been hidden behind a gameplay situation in which a player will need to spend several hours grinding in order to successfully complete it. Many have suggested that this may be an altered situation in an attempt to push players to buy these loot boxes.

So, What Makes The Loot Box System Particularly Bad?

It was previously stated that the loot box system provides players with a chance of earning good content or the content that they want, instead of just letting them buy specific items that they may desire.


Golden Loot Box. (Overwatch, Credit: Blizzard Entertainment.)

If one directly buys the best content, it is only a single transaction, thus only a single opportunity to gain extra revenue is created. With introducing a chance factor with loot boxes, the amount of money a single player may potentially spend on microtransactions is increased.

It is suggested that regardless if the person in question does or does not receive good content in the first loot box they open, there is a chance that those with more addictive personalities will keep on buying them just to see if they will get better goods in the next box.

So, How Is This Similar To Gambling?

In a previous discussion about video game addiction, the nature of addictive behaviour was discussed.


Briefly explained, any task in which a person is rewarded for accomplishing a particular goal may strengthen the brain’s need to perform that specific task, as we enjoy performing tasks that reward us.

This very broad and loose explanation of how addictive behaviour works is applied to most addictive behaviours, including gambling.

With gambling in particular, it is supposedly the risk associated with engaging in a chance-based activity (there is a chance you may win, but an even greater chance that you will lose) and the ultimate euphoric feelings felt when winning that plays on the brain’s internal reward system and makes the activity addictive.


Star Wars Battlefront 2‘s Loot Crate System. (Credit: EA Games)

The argument suggested by some critics of the loot box system is that it is very akin to real-world gambling in that individuals spend a little bit of money on a chance game in order to see whether they can better their position (except with loot boxes, the rewards are in no way usable in real-life) as well as the chance to experience the euphoria associated with actually receiving a good reward.

By doing this, it purposely angles itself at exploiting those with addictive personalities.

So, Is The Loot Box System Similar To Gambling?

This is a question that many are only just beginning to contemplate as loot boxes become increasingly popular in video games.

It is very difficult to deny the parallels that can be drawn between the loot box system and gambling. Quite clearly, in both situations, individuals are engaging in games of chance to see whether or not they can come off better once the game is over.


Loot boxes and then this?

One of the only attempts to answer this question from an organisation that may have an impact on how the loot box system may be regulated and formally perceived from the community at large has come from the ESRB; an organisation that assigns ratings and enforces advertising guidelines with regards to video games in North America.

The ESRB does not consider the loot box system to be gambling as despite the fact that there is an element of chance in buying a loot box, the player does always receive something – even if it is not necessarily something of great value.

According to the organisation, only games that encourage the use of real money in an attempt to earn more can be considered gambling.


Supposedly, only wgaering money on tangible rewards can be considered gambling.

Many have argued against this stance by suggesting that while the loot box system consistently rewards players and may not provide real-world rewards (thus making it far less-tempting to many individuals) it does, however, familiarise individuals, particularly children, with these games of chance that may later lead to some developing a traditional gambling addiction.

Recently, a petition in the United Kingdom created by individuals concerned over the loot box system and its seemingly addictive nature did result in the U.K. government responding to the matter.

Although in this case, some did feel that the governmental response to the issue was very evasive, the fact that enough people signed the petition to have the query acknowledged seems to enforce the idea that there are a lot of people who feel very strongly about the dangers of the loot box system.

Personally, I can’t really say that I’ve ever really fallen victim to purchasing microtransactions of any variety – loot box or otherwise – simply because I’m frugal rather than for a moral standpoint.


Forza Motorsport 7‘s Prize Crate System. (Credit: Microsoft Studios.)

However, I do tend to agree with the idea that loot boxes may be preying on those who suffer from addictive tendencies as just because I don’t buy them does not mean that other people don’t either.

There are probably some people out there who have spent quite a bit of money trying to win some sort of weapon or even cosmetic upgrade through purchasing loot boxes. Thus, it would be very difficult to believe that at least one person didn’t begin to show addictive behaviours – no matter how slight – with this system.

It becomes even harder to dispute this point when one takes facts such as made more money from COD points in Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (which allowed users to buy loot crates) than season passes in consideration.

Black Ops 3 Black Market.jpg

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 ‘s Supply Drop System. (Credit: Activision)

Most people will agree that the idea of loot box microtransaction systems being included in every single video game is very terrifying, thus I certainly hope this isn’t a reality we see in future.

So, do you think that loot box systems in gaming are similar to gambling? What do you think about the loot boxes in Shadow of War and Star Wars Battlefront 2? Please share in the comments down below.

[Credit: Games RadarThe Week; Scientific American; Kotaku; Charlie Intel;Eurogamer]