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Photo: Legendary: Game of Heroes

Gaming or gambling? Often, they coalesce

Legendary: Game of Heroes is a free “intense and strategic puzzle role-playing game,” its developer, N3twork, provides.

“Build a team of legendary heroes, go on quests and defeat monsters. Your Legendary adventure begins today!”

Although aimed at players aged 12 and up, it includes gambling elements, often by way of ‘in app’ purchases. Known in gaming as ‘loot boxes’, they are essentially virtual lucky dips. In Legendary, these can contain collectible ‘heroes’, like a Loki, ‘gems’ (virtual currency), as well as useless items.

Loot boxes are ubiquitous in games: in the last two years, there were more games released with them than in the last 20 years.

The element of chance renders them akin to real-world gambling games like roulette.

In psychology, this reward structure is termed a ‘variable ratio reinforcement schedule’, said University of Tasmania Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Dr Jim Sauer. After conducting research into 22 video games containing loot boxes released between 2016 and 2017, he and colleague Dr Aaron Drummond from Massey University deduced that “these games appear to meet both the psychological and legal definitions of gambling”.

Sauer explained how a variable ratio reinforcement schedule works. “It offers rewards on a random schedule. On average, you might get one every five or 10 times. Because it’s seemingly random, it keeps people playing, as every time you don’t get a reward, you feel you’re one step closer to getting it. You feel like the next time might be the next big win.

“It’s the same mechanism used in poker machine gambling.”

In terms of inferring loot boxes were psychologically similar to gambling, the researchers rated the games using British psychology researcher Mark Griffiths’ gambling criteria:

  • The exchange of money or valuable goods
  • An unknown future event determines the exchange
  • Chance at least partly determines the outcome
  • Non-participation can avoid incurring losses
  • Winners gain at the sole expense of losers

They found that nearly half of the games fulfilled these criteria, adding that loot box prizes that could be converted into real currency were particularly concerning, as they upped the gambling stakes, and were therefore more enticing.

Like with compulsive use of social media, adolescents are particularly at risk of uncontrollably buying loot boxes as they possess poorer impulse management than adults, they said.

This view is borne out in online forums.

“The Devs said previously that they think that the Loot Box model is fun for ppl. I personally don’t think so, but when I raised this point on the forum, some ppl gave their view that opening Loot Boxes is more fun than say having a fixed price tag for each hero, e.g. $100 for the Even Hero, $200 for the Ultra Rare…,” Legendary: Game of Heroes player ‘altqyl’ wrote in May.

Legal battlefronts

Gamers themselves, Sauer and Drummond became interested in comparing gaming to gambling after the global outcry over the amount of (for-cost) loot boxes in EA Sports’ Star Wars Battlefront II last year, and governments’ responses to it.

Hawaii was first to crack down, introducing bills that alternatively prohibit the sale of games with loot boxes to under 21s and require game companies to make the inclusion of loot boxes and their features clear to players. Then came Belgium and the Netherlands, which classified loot boxes as gambling. Recently, China also cracked down on loot boxes, compelling developers to declare the odds of players receiving items.

Australia, too, is aware of this issue. Late last month, the Senate unanimously voted to inquire into loot boxes’ legality.

Significantly, the US, the UK and France have all ruled that the use of loot boxes does not constitute gambling.

There’s also a prospect of the gaming industry self-regulating in this respect. Indeed, in response to player outrage, EA Sports recently announced it won’t include loot boxes in any forthcoming games.

Sauer and Drummond, whose research has been published in Nature Human Behaviour, think classifying the use of games with loot boxes as gambling goes too far, but that extra-regulatory measures like changing games’ age ratings to the legal gambling age of 18+, and adding parental advisory information about loot boxes to video game packaging, should be applied.

“I’ve got another colleague whose kids wanted a game with loot boxes, and she said, flat out, “no”. That’s one extreme. I think the sensible approach is somewhere in the middle,” Sauer said.

Supporters of loot boxes say, in addition to enjoying them, they serve a purpose: in free games, they allow developers to funnel profits from their sale back into the game, extending its features and shelf life.

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