The ESRB recently came out and stated that lootboxes in Shadow of War is not considered gambling. To my shocking surprise, I agreed with them because I think that lootboxes are worse than gambling and here’s why.
When you gamble you use money which is a liquid asset that can be used in the exchange of goods and services in the real world. Things such as food, water, medical care and other real-world things that provide us a good quality of life can be purchased with money. Gambling is the use of this real-world liquid asset for the opportunity at winning much more money.
In Shadow of War you can give up a small monetary value in the form of a microtransaction for the opportunity to open a lootbox and you can read my full opinion on microtransactions in games here. These lootboxes randomly give players different items that can be used in-game. These items range anywhere from gear to Orcs they can use. Shadow of War isn’t the only to feature lootboxes but unfortunately, stands out at the heart of the controversy.
When it comes to microtransaction lootboxes, players give up a real-world liquid asset for the chance at objects only relevant in a virtual world that have no use or benefit to reality. By that definition, microtransaction lootboxes are worse than gambling. At least gambling provides you with the opportunity for a return on your investment. Microtransaction lootboxes are a sunk cost, meaning you’ll never get it back, it’s gone and there was never even a chance of you getting it back. So what are you really paying for?
This issue kind of got under my skin. Why? Well, when I was younger my brother played Habbo Hotel. Habbo Hotel was a social game that had you customize your character and hang out at a hotel and meet new friends. Habbo featured in-game currency which you could use to buy items, clothing and customize your own hotel room. Well, with my brother being anywhere from 8 to 10 years old at the time, he didn’t have any sort of money to spend on any sort of microtransaction that would acquire him in-game currency.
The game, however, did feature a number players could call to acquire in-game currency. Fantastic right? As an 8 or 10-year-old you’re thinking “wow, this is magic!”. What wasn’t magical was the $800 phone bill my parents got.
I didn’t grow up rich. While my brother and I were pretty spoiled, we certainly weren’t well-off by any means and an $800 phone bill was a huge hit to all of us. As much as my parents fought, they couldn’t get their money back from anyone. It’s hard to blame my little brother who just didn’t know and in the end, there was little accountability from anyone.
Now imagine a world where my Mom or Dad goes out and loses $800 at a poker table. There would be HUGE consequences and he would be held accountable for his actions. So what’s the main difference in this scenario?
My Dad, being an adult, has the ability to recognize consequences. My brother, who was a child, didn’t have the mental capability to recognize consequences (none of us do until we hit our early 20’s) and that’s the biggest difference. ESRB’s responsibility isn’t just to protect kids from content but from themselves.
Shadow of War is rated M for mature, respectively. An M rating means:
“Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”
The ESRB rating system has categories for Real Gambling and Simulated Gambling and this article from Kotaku explains it well:
“According to the ESRB’s criteria, “Real Gambling” is any sort of wagering involving real cash, while “Simulated Gambling” means that the “player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency.” The spokesperson added that any game with real gambling will always receive an “Adults Only” rating, which would be poisonous for big publishers, as most big-box retailers will not sell A-O games in their stores.”
While I don’t think these games should be shunned by big-box retailers, I think the addition of lootboxes, that I actually think are rather predatory, should be extensively thought about, especially if they will be accessed by kids younger than 17 years old. If there’s even a chance of getting banned from these big-box stores, do these publishers still include the lootboxes? I’d like them to at least have that pressure on them.
The point is, I hope that a family never has to go through what my family went through when it comes to these microtransactions. The inclusion of these lootboxes presents this opportunity and I just hope the ESRB is doing everything they can to protect to protect these kids from themsleves.