Nuance in the MTX Debate

Are loot boxes gambling? Who’s responsible for teaching and protecting kids from exploitative microtransactions (MTX)? These two questions are usually quickly, condescendingly answered with “no” and “the parents” respectively. I think the discussion is far more nuanced than that. Even in a good faith debate those questions seem shortsighted or just outright irrelevant. To me, the issues with the gamification of people’s spending habits won’t ever get solved this way. So here I am, ready to cut through the distractions.

Let’s start with that first question. “Are loot boxes gambling?” In a legal sense: no. You’re told you will spend money and receive something for that money. But should it be? I think so. Things are constantly changing in society. We’re always learning. Our perspectives are always evolving. This is no different. Again I’ll bring up the word “gamification”. To me if you’re gamifying people spending money that’s gambling. It’s manipulation for the singular purpose of triggering a compulsion loop and creating an addiction. If it wasn’t then these games would sell you every item individually for money, with no randomness. Loot boxes aren’t legally gambling…yet. The definition absolutely needs to change in order to protect people.

Which brings me to protecting and educating the kids. First off, it’s not just kids. Plenty of adults are easily manipulated into spending addiction. I just want to make that clear, because at times it seems like people would rather you focus on the kids and not understand that it’s an issue for adults too. Second, yes parents are responsible for their kids. No one is arguing on behalf of the government coming in and telling your kids what they can and can’t play, nor does the government itself have any desire to do that. That’s not the point. The fact of the matter is parents aren’t robots. They can’t be awake 24/7, always watching every single thing their kids do. Parents can (and should) teach their kids about loot boxes and MTX. That only goes so far. To me government regulation and parents protecting their kids are one and the same. Parents should be calling on their government officials to make laws for this. It starts by demanding we change the legal definition of gambling so that it’s crystal clear and includes gacha-like MTX.

I don’t believe all MTX are evil. Some of them come in the form of selling items directly to you (no randomness included) for the purpose of funding additional content for the game. But the morality and the reasons behind those are a part of a different discussion. The fact of the matter is we’re capable of electing competent government officials who can comb through this topic and decide what needs to be held to a higher standard. We can fund research for this. And we can do so without having to worry about the future of games like Overwatch and Halo.

3 thoughts on “Nuance in the MTX Debate

  1. I’m not necessarily against your idea of labeling them as gambling but then do we also name baseball cards (Magic, Pokemon, whatever) and surprise eggs (Hatchemals) or mystery boxes (including Loot Crate, etc) as gambling? From my perspective, they’re basically the same concept just in a digital environment.

    Personally I’m not against them remaining in games as they are (without the gambling label) but I would like to see something put in place that would allow you to sell items received. For instance if I buy a pack of cards and I get a duplicate that I don’t need/want, I can then sell that card to someone else that might need/want it. And to be fair, in some cases a system like this is already in place (EA Sports Ultimate Team has an auction house), but I’d like to see it across the board for all games that have purchasable randomized rewards. And in conjunction with that, also a currency system that is fair to the player because in most cases the in-game currency is so under valued vs. time that it is actually ridiculous.

    Anyway, I don’t really have any solutions. I’m not against them but I do think there are changes that should be made.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the industry could adopt a sell/trade policy with these mechanics in an effort to avoid blow-back and government regulation. Even still though the gamification of it all is what the problem seems to be. Sure blind packs for card games aren’t new, but there’s also very little in the way of mental manipulation going on. The guaranteed item is the aspect they’ve taken from trading card games, but they’ve married it to mechanics only ever found in video gambling.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Outside of the instant and convienenent transaction of loot boxes in video games, I’m not sure that the mechanics are that much different. Both encourage you to buy more boxes/packs in the effort to get the item(s) you want. Whether that be a Legendary D. Va skin, alpha-deck Black Lotus card, or Paul Kariya rookie foil card (I spent more than my fair share of money chasing this one as a teenager). Card pack companies have historicaly played up the Wily Wonka aspect of finding the golden ticket hard and I’m not sure if it gets much more gamey than that.

        I mean, the market isn’t nearly as big now on the trading card/collectible card side of things (unless you are Pokemon and control 3/4 of the market share) but I remember when I was collecting cards that packaging would have call-outs that would entice you to buy the more expensive packs because there was a chance at a rare variant in the standard but a guarantee that there would be one in the more expensive pack. And they would place them in spots where you had to stand for a while, like the checkout counter or aisle. The whole thing was mental manipulation through and through.

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