Image via Overwatch wiki, uploaded by Theodorearthurroberts

Lootboxes are crazy popular in Gaming, and we don’t need an article picking apart the whose and the why’s of it, those are pretty obvious – it’s Gambling and it makes heaps of money.

And it’s tough to talk about, part of the reason is probably that we don’t like talking about it, but Gambling is, like it or not, what these lootboxes and lootcrates are.

So, okay, what more can we as consumers do than vote with our wallets? Well it’s important to be vocal about these things, and vocal about who they can impact. Kids, those who spend easy, the misguided, those with addictive personalities – it’s pretty easy for individuals to be tilted by these lootbox systems; how many times have you almost gotten that Factory new Man-of-War?

Ultimately this culminates in the addictive, reward oriented environments that Video Games foster and incentivize.

So that’s a lot to take in, and more wordy than I’m usually happy with, but it’s also like painting with a broad brush. Let’s get an academic on the scene – Joshua Krook.

@JoshKrook

Joshua Krook is an academic at Adelaide University, currently doing a PhD ‘exploring the creation of a new legal education curriculum centred on the humanities and the liberal arts’ (Via his Academic Profile).

Beyond that, Josh has also got a background in game development – here’s his game The Cinema RosaIt’ll be out in early 2019 across PC, Mac and Occulus.

By his own words, ‘two worlds intersect’.

Josh is also pretty vocal on the topic of gambling in games, which is why I was so keen to talk to him – here’s his article in The Conversation, ‘there are no age restrictions for gambling in video games, despite potential risks to children’.

So here’s some of the questions that I put to Josh, and his very interesting answers.

From the Looks of your article, it looks likes you’re arguing that there’s not enough legislation and there’s not enough challenging the companies rolling out these gambling systems in Video Games.

‘The problem with Law in General when it comes to technology is that the law is kind of a decade or sometimes two decades behind current technology. You know, we’re just starting to get laws around privacy online and these sorts of things when the internet has been around since the late 90’s.’

Can you imagine the rating system being developed to be an effective way of keeping these gambling systems away from kids?

‘Yeah, I could, basically the current situation is that the vast majority of games that have gambling in them, in fact, in one study, every game that had gambling in it, was rated either G or PG, so from a classification stand point, anyone can play them, there’s no age restriction kind of in-built to that’.

‘The way to fix that would be to set a higher classification, so, you know, you have to be 18 to enter a Casino, create the same with games, it should be that you have to be 18 to play a game with Gambling in it, that would mean setting the highest rating, you know, R18+ on games that feature actual Gambling where you’re using real money and losing money as a result of betting on the game’.

Do you think the response to that, for instance, CSGO because of its Gambling and Lootbox System, were to be R18+ tomorrow, at an entry standpoint and at a purchase standpoint, can you imagine a way of restricting kids from being able to make that purchase of the game initiallty’.

‘Well, It’s very difficult to restrict access, I think one of the things about Classifications is that they restrict physical access, so if you go to a store that sells Video Games, in the real world, and you go up and you want to buy a Game, you have to have ID to buy a game that’s 18+, some stores won’t even sell games that are 18+ because they don’t make much money on them’.

‘One is very different, obviously, you can lie about your age and you can pretend to be over 18, but the difference comes in terms of some online systems do have some sort of verification – sometimes if it’s an over 18 platform you have to provide Credit Card details, so if you’re a kid, you have to either borrow your parents Credit Card, or you can’t access it. So that’s kind of one barrier, there’s a lack of barriers in terms of games that have gambling mechanics and are accessible for free, which means that if you’re a kid you can download them without paying anything without putting any Credit Card details in, and there’s literally no restriction – so there’s a distinction between them’.

What were some interesting details found in the 2018 Digital Australia Report that you cite in your article?

‘What they’ve found in the research, and this is a sad statistic as a game designer to admit, but what they found in the research is that if you play any video games you’re actually more susceptible to gambling, mainly because Video Games kind of use the same techniques of visual rewards, audio rewards, types of rewards – the problem with Gambling Games is that they take it a step further, and you become aclimatized to that specific type of reward system.’

‘I think that the changes are notable. People have really old fashioned views of Video Games, and Video Games have changed, so now they’re accessible everywhere, they’re on mobiles, so everyone has access to them, but beyond that, the gender balance has shifted as well, so now more women play games, younger people and older people play games, that report was really looking at the spread of digital technology and how ubiquitous it is. And I think a lot of reports that are from the mainstream media outside of the gaming media unrepresented that.

How do these findings apply to Lootboxes?

‘Lootboxes are basically a very primitative form of gambling, so in the 1930’s there was a psychologist, I think he was at Harvard, and his name was B.F Skinner, and he did studies on rats, and what he found was that if you got rats in a box, and if you gave them food when they pressed a button, they kept pressing the button even when you stopped giving them food, and so what he concluded from that was you could get someone addicted to a behaviour by randomizing the outcome of that behaviour’

‘Lootboxes are basically a Skinner Box implemented into a Video Game’.

‘Even if you give someone nothing, if they’re already addicted to something, they’ll keep doing it, they’ll keep spending money, even when they get really bad prizes – that’s the difference between buying something, where you’re consciously aware of the quality of the product, and lootboxes, which are randomized reward systems that are aimed at making you addicted to purchasing them’.

Do Video Games foster the perfect environment for someone to get into Gambling? Are they a perfect environment to exploit a user?

‘Yeah, I mean, I don’t think it’s necessarily as sinister as that in Video Games generally, I think if people like playing games then they’re probably going to go on play other kinds of games, and gambling is just another game’.

When we talk about kids in these environments when the rewards are stimulating them mentally, the audio and visual cues, do you think at an entry level, the dynamic of both Free to Play games and Phone Games adds to the issue of mitigating kids access to gambling in games?

‘Yeah… … Let me put your question another way, what’s the best way to get someone to stop being addicted to something, and the best way to do that is to take away their access to that thing that they’re addicted to. So when you talk about Casinos, what casinos do is they intentionally don’t have Windows in them, they take time off the wall, they put ATM’s in Casino’s so you don’t have to leave, they put food in Casino’s so you don’t have to leave, the idea about Casino addictive technology is to keep you in the place as long as possible’.

‘So when you look at mobile games, it’s basically, the worst kind, we’re talking about actual casino games, are like having a casino with you like 24/7. And you’ve seen examples kind of like more friendly types of games, you know, you see examples with like, Candy Crush, where you see cases like Candy Crush where…. … people in the US have spent their life savings on Candy Crush, and the reason why they do that is in part because once they get addicted they can’t get away from the technology’.

Do you believe that there’s a level of Not-Understanding these issues in Mainstream Medias?

‘I think that the mainstream media tends to represent gaming in a way that it was in the 1990’s… … I think that they tend to view games as less dangerous, in terms of gambling, than casino’s, because they have this view of casino’s as giant empires, and they also have a view of Video Game companies as very small, and the Video Game industry as very small and very Niche… … The mainstream media is way out of touch on these issues, and Video Games in general… … I think politicians are as well… … In Australia there’s also a general lack of investment and oversight of the gaming industry in general. We also have some of the largest Gambling Video Game companies in the world’.

‘There’s that strange situation there’.

Do you think there’s a way to design the modern Lootbox system in a way that doesn’t especially reinforce simply almost putting in slots and just spending heaps of money on opening crates – Do you think there’s a way to do it ethically?

‘I have two views on this – on one hand I feel that this is just an unethical business practice, you know… … a lot of it is driven by psychologists and neuroscientists joining partnerships with Video Game companies to design these tools, and then the use of big data to harness how to use them most effectively… … but in terms of what would be the best system if companies were to keep this method and change things, I think one argument is the one that I’ve seen online is the entire game should be accessible without using these systems…. … the other argument I’ve seen is that lootboxes should be limited to visual upgrades, you know… … upgrades that don’t effect the game itself…’

‘…On the whole, I haven’t seen amazing arguments for the current model, but I have seen movement more in towards it, like I think most of the big companies are looking at this in a way of keeping a constant cash flow from one game rather than developing multiple games’.

‘It’s a very different business model’.

What do you think of Battlefield V’s move toward an all unlockable system without Lootboxes, but with paid cosmetics?

‘It matches the transition in advertising – so advertising used to be about listing the qualities in a product, and in the 1960’s, advertising became about psychologically manipulating the consumer into buying things, using their subconscious impulses’

‘With games, the ideas behind lootboxes, and a lot of these tools, is to psychologically influence people into spending their money – so, yeah, the idea of listing what you’re getting and knowing ahead of time the qualities of what you’re getting is a much better model because it empowers the person playing the game rather than trying to psychologically influence them’.

Do you think there’s any standout examples of gambling in games being represented politically?

‘I think there’s been some good movement in Belgium… … I think some countries are taking this information very seriously, I think that the European countries tend to be more focused on privacy and the rights of the users… … I think in those countries you see a lot of movement around games, and a lot of movement around regulation of gaming industry’.

‘You haven’t seen much in Australia… … The Government doesn’t want to invest in or regulate games, for some reason that is unknown to me’.

If the representation were there at a massive level, would companies change their models overnight?

‘Companies want to make money and if you get in the way of them making money then they will bend over backwards to keep making money, so if you classified games as a higher rating, then they would remove aspects of the games that got the higher rating to put it down a rating’.

‘They actually change the content of those games to sell into those markets’.

‘If the Government was stronger on this, then you’d see companies both reacting and changing, particularly if several Governments were stronger on this’.

Special thanks to Joshua Krook for taking the time to be interviewed. You can follow him @JoshKrook

A young Journalist studying at the University of Technology, Sydney, Zachariah Kelly strives to offer new perspectives of the scene, and take a critical glance at modern Video Game releases, update models and communities. Zac's big on Overwatch, Dirty Bomb, Team Fortress II and Grand Theft Auto 5.