Are loot boxes a form of gambling? It’s a question some are asking as fan resentment over the way loot boxes are being added to games like Forza Motorsport 7, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, and Star Wars Battlefront II boils over. The charge is being led by popular YouTube personality John “Totalbiscuit” Bain, who has called for the ESRB to officially classify randomized loot systems as gambling.
This is significant because ESRB guidelines state any game with “real gambling” -- that is, any wagering with real-life cash -- is automatically rated AO (Adults Only). Most North American retailers, including Walmart and GameSpot, won’t carry AO games, meaning a lot of big games would essentially be banned from sale if the ESRB decided loot boxes constitute gambling.
Well, it seems the video game industry can breathe easy for now. In a statement to Kotaku, the ESRB clarified their position on loot boxes…
ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling. While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.
The comparison to collectible card games is apt, but the line remains rather blurry. If a guarantee of in-game content is what differentiates loot boxes from gambling, what about when you open up a box and find nothing new in it? A system where it’s possible to get nothing new or useful for your money sounds like gambling to me.
It's unlikely the ESRB will change its stance on loot boxes anytime soon, but hopefully publishers take note of the backlash against the heavy-handed way they’ve been implemented. What do you think? Are loot boxes harmless or just a new take on the slot machine?