Loot boxes found in some video games are the latest items to come under scrutiny from gambling regulators and “advocacy groups” in both the US and Europe. As part of the crusade to purge any element of risk and uncertainty from young people’s lives, it is alleged that loot boxes constitute gambling and should either be banned or regulated.

Loot boxes are a component of some video games. They are an optional element of games through which players can gain extra items, abilities and characters. They are not required to complete or enjoy the game. Boxes can be earned through game play or purchased with money. Contents of the boxes can be common or rare and boxes will always contain something. But the player does not know the contents prior to opening the box.

It is this final point that has caused all the consternation. Loot boxes involve an element of uncertainty, risk and potential for disappointment. Critics argue this makes it akin to gambling and, therefore, bad for young players of video games.

As one group states: “Exactly like a slot machine, players bet a set value over and over again to open these digital boxes, hoping to get the item of real value they want, usually to only end up with digital trash. This is gambling by any other name and it simply doesn’t belong in video games.”

In an article on the topic of loot boxes the UK Gambling Commission acknowledged that loot boxes were not gambling under the UK regulation but still suggested that they were a risk:

“In practical terms this means that where in-game items obtained via loot boxes are confined for use within the game and cannot be cashed out it is unlikely to be caught as a licensable gambling activity. In those cases our legal powers would not allow us to step in.

However, many parents are not interested in whether an activity meets a legal definition of ‘gambling’. Their main concern is whether there is a product out there that could present a risk to their children. We are concerned with the growth in examples where the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred.

But long before digital loot boxes existed, children have had pastimes which involve repeat purchases, uncertainty, risk and disappointment and which would also have to be regulated as gambling if loot boxes are to be.

During the author’s childhood the hobby of collecting stickers was a popular one among schoolboys. The aim was to complete albums usually relating to football but also the gloriously vulgar Garbage Pail Kids.

The hobby of collecting stickers involves the following actions:
1.    Visiting the newsagents to spend pocket money on as many packets of stickers are you wanted, no questions asked = frequent, repeat purchases for real money.
2.    The knowledge that you were buying packets of stickers but not knowing exactly which stickers would be inside = uncertainty and risk.
3.    The opening of the packets of stickers and hastily flicking through them to see what you had bought = excitement, potential for happiness, potential for disappointment.
4.    Most boys carried around a huge bundle of duplicate stickers held together with a rubber band, for which they had paid but which were of little use in completing their album.

To paraphrase the quotation above: “Exactly like a slot machine, sticker collectors bet a set value over and over again to open these packets of stickers, hoping to get the stickers of real value they want, usually only to end up with stickers they already have. This is gambling by any other name and it simply doesn’t belong in sticker collecting.”

In the ever-shrinking realm of common sense, loot boxes in video games are not gambling.

In the era of policy by public opinion polls, however, GBGC would not be surprised if they ended up being either prohibited or required to get some kind of gambling licence.

But under the same logic by which loot boxes are regulated as gambling, selling packets of stickers would also require a gambling licence.

As GBGC has previously highlighted, an element of parental responsibility should suffice. One of the games that sparked the latest epidemic of moral outrage is Battlefront II. In Europe the game carries a PEGI rating of 16. This means the game’s content – regardless of loot boxes – is not suitable for under 16s. In the UK, at least, 16-year-olds can purchase lottery tickets, so should be able to cope with the concepts of risk and disappointment.

The UK Gambling Commission concluded its article on loot boxes by saying “whether [loot boxes are] gambling or not, we all have a responsibility to keep children and young people safe.”

“Safe” is a conveniently nebulous term. Preventing children from experiencing risk, uncertainty, and disappointment at unexpected or unwanted events is not keeping them safe, it is keeping them unprepared for the realities of life. If those concepts can be learned within the non-catastrophic confines of a video game, so much the better.

As generations of children know, Charlie Bucket took a risk and he ended up winning a chocolate factory.
‘I think,’ he said quietly, ‘I think . . . I’ll have just one more of those chocolate bars. The same kind as before, please.’

Charlie picked it up and tore off the wrapper . . . and suddenly . . . from underneath the wrapper . . . there came a brilliant flash of gold.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)