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Gamers Make Their Feelings Known On Loot Boxes

Loot boxes in games have proven controversial, to say the least. While buying a loot box or two might seem like a fun way to get some new cosmetics and support a game you enjoy, the reality has proven to be very different. England is considering officially labeling loot boxes as a form of gambling, which would ban them from being included in games for children. That report comes from the office of the country's children's commissioner, Anne Longfield, but she's hardly alone in thinking that.

In a recent survey, 1,500 adults from the UK were asked about their opinions on free-to-play mobile games and loot boxes. According to CompareMyMobile, a cell phone company in England, a whopping 74% of people surveyed said that they felt loot boxes were gambling and should be considered as such.

The loot box debate is nothing new. Some gamers see loot boxes as nothing more than digital versions of booster packs — something any trading card game player can relate to. It seems like an apt comparison. After all, what is a booster pack except something that you spend real money on for the thrill of finding out what's inside? Will this be the one that gets you that powerful new card you've been looking for? The only way to know is to buy it!

On the other hand, many people feel that loot boxes are intentionally predatory, especially since they often target young children. Unlike buying a Yu-Gi-Oh! booster pack from a physical store, it's very easy for children to continue making in-game purchases after their parents or guardians have input their payment information once. In extreme cases this can cause serious financial harm to the family.

Some of the amounts spent on supposedly free games are truly staggering: one person in the above survey said that they had spent $7,000 on a free-to-play game in the past year. An official UK investigation turned up one family whose adult son had spent an unbelievable $62,000 on Runescape in a single year, capped only by the company's own fraud-prevention measures. While the investigation didn't specify what the money had been spent on, it's believed that the game's Treasure Hunter loot system is the most likely culprit.

With all of that in mind, it's easy to see why many companies have started implementing loot boxes into their games (both free-to-play and not). Sometimes, as with Overwatch, the loot boxes only contain cosmetics that don't impact gameplay. Many gamers find that model at least a bit more palatable, since it doesn't stray into "pay-to-win" territory.

On the other hand, sometimes pay-to-win is the name of the game. Another Blizzard classic, Hearthstone, provides a perfect example of this. While you can get booster packs using in-game money, a player who refuses to cough up any real-world dough is going to get a lot fewer packs and be at a serious disadvantage because of it. Just like the real-life trading card games it imitates, Hearthstone is, by nature, a pay-to-win game.

Loot boxes have even started creeping into real life. Some companies, such as the aptly-named Loot Crate, have based their entire businesses around selling randomized boxes of goods to customers. Some businesses that have nothing to do with games have gotten on the gravy train too. A quick Google search for subscription boxes turns up everything from food to shaving supplies. Even Sony's gotten in the action, bringing PlayStation loot boxes to last year's Comic-Con.

If it seems strange that loot boxes keep cropping up everywhere in spite of how many people seem to hate them, consider the incredible return on investment that gaming companies get from them. For the cost of programming in a loot box system, you now have a product you can sell an effectively infinite number of times. It'll take a lot more than some grumbling from customers to make profit-seeking companies let go of that model.

Then, too, there are plenty of people who just enjoy gambling. For these people, it's not always about what they get — it's the thrill of finding out what's in the box, even if it turns out to be junk. When it's children getting that thrill, though, they may end up spending far more money on it than their parents are able to afford. That brings us right back to England's attempt to have loot boxes banned from games targeted at children.

Whatever your personal feelings on loot boxes, short of sweeping legislation it seems like they're here to stay. However, with numbers like 74% of gamers considering loot boxes to be gambling, we might see steps taken to curb them sooner rather than later.