Loot Boxes and Gambling


I saw this piece in the News of the Week and found it interesting. The ESRB, which establishes age and content ratings for video games, has reasoned that loot boxes do not constitute gambling because the player is always guaranteed to win something–i.e. there is no risk of loss. While the particular item or skin that the player receives may not have been the one that he or she was hoping for, the player is still getting something.

Dictionary.com defines gambling as “the activity or practice of playing at a game of chance for money or other stakes”. Merriam-Webster’s definition is “to play a game for money or property; to bet on an uncertain outcome”. Wikipedia provides a more expansive definition: “Gambling is the wagering of money or something of value (referred to as ‘the stakes’) on an event with an uncertain outcome with the primary intent of winning money or material goods. Gambling thus requires three elements to be present: consideration, chance and prize”.

In my mind, the ESRB’s logic is at least defensible. The definitions don’t appear to require the player to be at risk of not winning anything at all. Another commentator was not so convinced, writing, “That’s ludicrous. Would roulette not be gambling if they guaranteed you a breath mint for every spin?”. There’s another way of looking at it, too. While it’s true that, technically speaking, the player always wins when opening a loot box, another party also always wins: the house (i.e. the game developer). If I spend $3.00 to open a crate in CS:GO (no comment as to whether I’ve actually done this…) and finally get that Chantico’s Fire M4A1-S StatTrak, then I’ve certainly won. But the game’s developer, Valve, hasn’t lost anything. They don’t have one less skin to dole out. Skins–or whatever the loot box reward may be–are not some finitely limited piece of tangible property. They’re just files that Valve can reproduce as many times as they want with the click of a button. Valve doesn’t care which skin I win because every skin is equally valueless to them. All they care is that I’ve just paid them $3.00.

You can easily contrast this to the roulette example. If I were to bet $1 and lose, then I receive nothing in return. If I were to win $100, though, then that $100 comes directly out of the casino’s pocket. The casino is hoping that I lose because it’s best for its bottom line.

For me, the issue is not so much whether loot boxes constitute gambling according to the strict definition. Rather, the practice itself can simply be predatory and contrary to the ethos of gaming.