It’s the debate that won’t go away: what should the world do about loot boxes in video games? Should we see loot boxes as a cunning weapon wielded by games developers to extract more and more money from players – particularly children and teenagers? Or should we take a more liberal attitude and accept loot boxes as an integral, exciting part of game mechanics?

For those not in the know, loot boxes are in-game items that can be purchased using real money. Think new weapons and armour, items of clothing and playable characters. What makes them controversial is that – generally speaking – you won’t know what you get until after you pay up. Naysayers have slammed loot boxes as a form of gambling, exploiting legal loopholes to target children.

This is not a new comparison. As far back as the 2000s, when they first started appearing in video games, journalists were noting the startling similarity between loot boxes and video slots games. Take the example of the highly influential, massively multiplayer online roleplaying game ZT Online. It became known for “treasure chests” which would throw up spinning prizes like a slots game. An article on the ZT Online phenomenon specifically compared one hooked player to a “gambler in a casino”.

Over time, critics began to note how loot boxes seem to offer an insidiously compelling risk/reward scenario – what experts call “variable rate reinforcement”, with prizes handed out in an addictively unpredictable way. As Dr Luke Clark, who works in gambling research, has said: “Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system [which reinforces the sensation of pleasure] responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis.”

Rising concern over loot boxes has accompanied their growing prevalence in games over the past decade or so. Some of the biggest video games of modern times have incorporated loot box mechanics to generate vast profits for their creators. An early, game-changing example was BioWare’s Mass Effect 3, which was released in 2012. Loot boxes allowing players to purchase randomized packs of gear were added to cover the financial outlay of developing the multiplayer mode. As Jesse Houston of BioWare later said, “Multiplayer at the time was a very cost-heavy and very expensive thing, and we wanted to find a nice way of basically offsetting that cost in a way that felt really good for the player.”

The crux of the dilemma can be felt in the words “felt really good for the player”. To dismiss loot boxes as nothing more or less than a toxic menace that encourages gambling is to discount the real pleasure that players can derive if they play responsibly and don’t spend over their limits. This is what EA vice-president Kerry Hopkins was getting at in 2019 when she compared loot boxes to Kinder Surprise eggs.

That said, there’s no denying the winds of change are blowing against loot boxes. This is thanks in part to testimonies by angry gamers who’ve ravaged their bank accounts by over-spending on things like FIFA Ultimate Team Mode (a much-criticised aspect of the popular football franchise where players can find themselves spending ever-increasing amounts on randomized player packs).

Some countries have taken a firm stance on loot boxes. In 2018, the Netherlands initiated a crackdown, ruling that loot boxes which offer virtual items that can be traded or “transferred” between players would be considered an illegal form of gambling. That same year, Belgium deemed loot boxes to be “in violation of gambling legislation”, meaning games publishers had to remove them or face prosecution.

In the UK, meanwhile, powerful voices have become increasingly impatient over the failure to tackle loot boxes. In 2020, a House of Lords Select Committee report said that “if a product looks like gambling and feels like gambling, it should be regulated as gambling” – a powerful rebuke to those who argue that, since you can’t actually win cash prizes through loot boxes, it shouldn’t be considered as a form of gambling.

Aggravating things even more is the surge in esports betting on tournaments involving games like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Betting revenues have shot up during the pandemic lockdown, but there has been alarm over droves of young people being caught up in the frenzy, with recent research revealing that 85% of esports betting account followers are under 24. Of that number, 17% are under 16. It’s recalled the outcry in recent years over underage “skin gambling”, which has seen countless young teenagers and children use purchasable, in-game items like clothing and weapons “skins” as a form of currency to bet on esports and even casino games like roulette through illicit, third-party sites.

Controversy continues to rage over how to deal with these thorny issues. Recently, the UK’s Young Gamers and Education Trust (YGAM) launched their Parent Hub, which aims to increase awareness among parents of loot boxes and the “effects that gambling and gaming may have on the mental and financial well being”, in the words of spokesperson Amanda Atkinson.

One researcher working closely with YGAM is Dr. James Ash of Newcastle University, who has reiterated the warnings flagged up by many critics over the past decade. “For some children, the act of opening a loot box is as important as what it contains,” he recently said. “Feelings of surprise and suspense lead to the repeat purchase of loot boxes… Children and young people have told us how they feel disappointment, frustration, anger, and regret at loot box purchases, yet they are still driven to purchase again.”

It looks like it’s only a matter of time before the UK and other nations around the world take firm action. The questions are when… and how?