Precious and worthless: a comparative perspective on loot boxes and gambling

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Abstract

Odds-based microtransactions in video games, so-called “loot boxes,” offer users a chance to get special game items for actual money (i.e., legal tender), as opposed to acquiring this "loot" through in-game achievements. This feature provides revenue for game developers and allows users to acquire items that would otherwise require hours of game play. But loot boxes threaten to degrade game design and to foist addictive mechanics on vulnerable users. Loot box purchasers, much like pathological gamblers placing a wager, report an initial rush when opening a loot box and then a wave of regret and shame. This problem is especially acute in underage consumers who spend thousands of dollars to gain a desired item. Governments are aware of this disturbing trend and are attempting to regulate or outright ban the practice.

Present attempts to constrain game developers are predicated on a finding that selling random virtual items is in fact gambling. That approach is flawed. Loot boxes are unlikely to meet the legal requirements of gambling on account of two factors: users are guaranteed to receive at least one item and all items offered have no tangible value. Moreover, prohibiting the practice may encourage political actors to further censor video games, a popular scapegoat following school shootings and other tragic events. While loot boxes may not constitute gambling, the troublingly opaque nature of loot box odds warrants intervention. Accordingly, this Essay offers a novel dual-prong transparency-based solution that avoids an outright ban on the activity. First, the odds of obtaining specific loot should be disclosed to consumers. Second, regulators should require game developers to rate such games as appropriate for adults, not children.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-114
Number of pages38
JournalMinnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology
Volume20
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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