EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II video game is facing its own loot box controversy. Since Battlefront II was released, game enthusiasts have been critical of the game’s economy and progression systems.
It is a familiar controversy, one faced by Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in the United States and Australia and the annual FIFA Ultimate Team in the United Kingdom. Last year, Steam/Valve had to send out 23 cease-and-desist letters to third-party skin gambling sites, due to actions by the Washington Gaming Commission.
EA designers are well aware of the loot box debate which has been ongoing these past months. This time, though, the video game involves one of the biggest pop culture franchises in the world — and the Disney Company.
Disney/LucasFilm tends to maintain a high degree of control in the design of its licensed video games, both in terms of visual quality and narrative. With “The Last Jedi” only weeks from opening in theaters, the question will be whether Disney executives will value the revenues from in-game economies, or whatever effect a controversy might have on box office revenues.
How Loot Boxes Work
The main question is whether loot boxes are a form of gambling. Players are allowed to purchase in-game enhancements in many video games, computer games, and smartphone games. These freemium enhancements are called “skins” in CS:GO, but most games call them loot boxes.
The way a loot box works is this: the player purchases the loot box, then waits in anticipation to see who much and what kind of loot they purchased. The anticipation of buying a good loot crate drives sales, according to experts. Many wonder if the random nature of the purchase is not gambling under another name.
Gabe Zichermann: “It Is…Slot Machines”
Gabe Zichermann, the gamification expert and VP of Strategy and Communications at Trymedia, thinks so. Recently, the former manager at the Gamasutra and Game Developer magazines discussed the Battlefront II loot box game mechanics with Venture Beat.
Zichermann said of the in-game economy, “It is literally, exactly, a slot machine.”
A Theory on Unpredictable Rewards
Dr. Luke Clark, the Gambling Research Director at the University of British Columbia, told PC Gamer that “unpredictable rewards” are designed by developers to draw maximum interest. Dr. Clark agreed with Gabe Zichermann that loot boxes are gambling. Clark added that the “uncertain reward” triggers the dopamine producers in the brain, which helps drive many forms of addiction.
Dr. Clark said, “We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards. Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis.”
Underage Gambling Concerns
If Zichermann and Clark are right, then one major problem is that Star Wars: Battlefront II is marketed to underage children. One can argue that responsible adults know what they’re getting into when they buy a loot box. Underage children are not the age of consent, so EA and Disney offering them in-game purchases which act like slot machines are a big problem.
Some fans of Battlefront II are not concerned about ethical issues or the legality of loot boxes in the United States. Instead, they are concerned about fairness and the fun of the game. In-game purchases create unfair advantages for the players with the funds to buy loot boxes, while making the game less satisfying for the rest of the crowd.
UK Petition on Loot Boxes
Loot boxes have begun to attract the notice of gaming regulators. In the United Kingdom, the UK Gambling Commission said it is looking into whether loot boxes are gambling.
British MPs have discussed the issue, because a loot boxes petition on the UK parliament’s website got 15,000 signatures. If it achieves 100,000 signatures by May 2018, the British House of Commons will have to have floor debate on the issue.
Belgian Gaming Commission on Loot Crates
Now, the Belgian Gaming Commission is investigating to determine whether loot crates are gambling or not, according to VTM News. The BGC is a no-nonsense, all-inclusive gambling regulator, so if it determines loot crates are gambling, then it likely will ban loot crates in Belgium.
Entertainment Software Rating Board
In the United States, only the Washington Gaming Commission has shown any interest in the issue. Most American lawmakers do not seem too concerned about loot boxes, but the Entertainment Software Rating Board has shown an interest in the issue.
All it takes is one horror story of a teenager maxing out their parents’ credit cards to ignite a controversy. Parents sued Valve over underage gambling of CS:GO skins. While that story blew over, it would be naive to believe a similar story won’t happen with Star Wars: Battlefront II, so the material for a scandal likely is there.