Are child-targeted video game loot boxes ethical?
- Loot boxes are “virtual treasure chests containing undisclosed items that can be used in games.”
- Citing its gambling laws, Belgium outlawed the use of loot boxes within FIFA soccer video games in 2019.
- Statista reports that in 2021, the “worldwide loot box market value” was estimated at over $17 billion.
- About 20% of video gamers in the US are under the age of 18.
Pay-to-play video game loot boxes targeting children are an inherently exploitative business practice that should be regulated by gaming commissions, just as traditional forms of gambling are today.
Microtransactional video games, like the most popular social networks, are designed to stimulate reward centers in users' brains, bypassing rational cost/benefit analysis on the part of the user. This is exploitative of adult users, to say nothing of the exploitation of children, who are not equipped to understand the value of their parent's money. In fact, a recent class-action suit has been filed against Epic Games, the makers of the popular online shooter Fortnite, claiming that Epic hired psychologists to extensively 'dig into the human brain and make it as addictive as possible,' according to Alessandra Chartrand of Calex Légal.
This exploitation of the psychologically vulnerable is nothing new; it's why society has erected clear legal safeguards around how gambling may be commercialized. Paid loot boxes in video games are simply virtual gambling. After the European Union began to regulate them as such, Blizzard, Valve, and EA pulled loot boxes from those jurisdictions.
Loot boxes shouldn't be banned outright, just as adults of sound mind should be allowed to gamble at a casino to a reasonable degree for entertainment's sake. They should, however, be regulated. Part of that regulation should include not being allowed to market to children, just as Joe Camel and other mascot characters were banned from cigarette advertisements in the 1990s.
Video game loot boxes are 'virtual packages with undisclosed contents that are available for purchase with real money.' They contain virtual cosmetic items, power-ups, and gear that can boost a player's chances of winning a game. Rarer items show up less often but, by default, encourage more gameplay. Since children and adolescents are the primary populations of the gaming world, they are exposed to this type of 'gambling.' Though, that is entirely up to them as to whether or not they choose to pay.
Video game company Electronic Arts considers loot boxes to be 'surprise mechanics' that are also 'quite ethical.' Like opening a present on Christmas morning, you buy the pack, open it, build teams, and trade. The ethics lie in the apparent intentionality of the design. Sometimes prizes get repetitive, but for a moment, your attention is captured, and you are given a fantastic spectacle—without the disappointment you may find at a slot machine.
Young gamers may be primed to gamble with this kind of gaming mechanism, or they could learn from it. It is a wonderful opportunity for children to get a head start on practicing money management as they encounter desired content that they aren't able to purchase immediately. Parents should talk to their kids about what they see on their screens so that everyone understands the game's intention. Perception of these loot boxes and parents sharing their own beliefs and values around them is critical. Help your kids get perspective on the games they play by previewing ratings and identifying clear intentions. That way, everyone can be on the same video-gaming page.
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