I suppose it is appropriate that I am writing this article about video game loot box legislation as I am watching Overwatch, one of the most popular video games in the world and one of the ones best known for its use of loot boxes. Recently, two pairs of bills were introduced in the Hawaii legislature that look to regulate loot boxes in an attempt to protect consumers.
For those unfamiliar, loot boxes are in-game collectibles that contain random items. These loot boxes (they go by different names in different games) can be earned by playing, be bought with in-game currency, be bought with real money, or any combination of the three, depending on the game. Players will usually know what sorts of items can be found in loot boxes, but they will not know EXACTLY what items will be revealed.
In some games, like Overwatch, loot box items are only cosmetic and serve no real purpose, whereas in other games, the items can give players an in-game advantage, like an ability boost or a more powerful weapon.
The criticism of loot boxes is that they represent a form of gambling, that every day, players spend money on loot boxes, hoping to open one up to find a very rare or powerful item (usually, the items are quite common or unexciting). There are even some (unauthorized) sites where players can make money buying and selling these items, or even using them to gamble with.
Because of their gambling-like properties, lawmakers in Hawaii have introduced the bills to try to accomplish a few things:
1) Restrict the sale of games with loot boxes or similar mechanism to customers 21-years of age and older
2) Require game makers to make the probabilities of receiving certain items very apparent when a customer is about to buy loot boxes or even simply open one
3) Require game makers to label games that have loot box mechanism. This label would be on the packaging if the game is on physical media like a DVD or on the game’s sale page if it is a downloadable game.
As a video gamer myself, I am fine with loot boxes to a certain extent, though I also consider them a form of gambling if players are buying them with real money or with in-game currency that has some sort of real-world value (even if it can’t actually be sold). The system Overwatch uses is totally fine with me, as loot boxes can easily be earned just by playing the game and nothing included in a loot box offers a player any sort of advantage in-game. Everything is cosmetic.
What I don’t like are games where it feels compulsory to buy loot boxes because they contain items that give players gameplay advantages. This gets into “pay to win” territory, as it really hurts people who either can’t afford loot boxes or simply don’t want to buy them. This is even worse in games that already cost money to buy, as opposed to free-to-play games that use loot boxes as a way to try to make a profit.