So last time I talked about why I hate lootboxes so much. Now the next most obvious question is, “If Shamus hates lootboxes so much, why is he so shy about calling for regulation?” Or perhaps, “Why is he always talking about how ‘people’ will want to regulate them, without naming himself as one of those people?”
The first and most obvious reason is that doing so is an explicit political position and would violate the no politics rule. It would be really obnoxious for me to prohibit public policy debates and then spend my time advocating for specific public policies. That would turn the No Politics Rules into a “You’re not allowed to disagree with me” rule, and that’s a fantastic way to frustrate and alienate people.
But Shamus, 99.9% of us agree on this topic. It ought to be safe to talk about.
Maybe? I don’t know. Magic: the Gathering and Hearthstone are games built around “lootboxes” in the sense of paying money for a chance to win desired items that are impossible or impractical to obtain through gameplay. I’m not a player and I don’t particularly care about the games, but it’s still a game that healthy, consenting adults are able to enjoy. Moreover, there are plenty of people who enjoy the occasional lootbox. “Hey, I like this free game and I want to support the creator, so I’ll buy a couple of lootboxes and maybe I’ll get something cool.”
I don’t want to see those people lose access to the things they enjoy. I don’t want their games turned into collateral damage in a war against Battlefront II style lootboxes. Again, if I get up on my soapbox and advocate for banning your thing because doing so might make my thing better, then suddenly I’ve made myself your enemy. I don’t want to take anything away from those people. Moreover, I don’t want any of those people to think I want to take anything away from them.
We should be able to have reasonable discussions about complex topics. In fact, those are my favorite kinds of debates. We can talk about Procedural vs. Object-Oriented programming. We can argue about esoteric rules, or different ways of presenting challenges, or different kinds of storytelling. It’s all good. We can all have our say and leave, or we can stick around and see if we can untangle the different words we’re using to talk about tangentially related ideas as they relate to our individually-tuned value systems. I might not be able to enjoy Dark Souls like you do, but with a little patience we can understand why this discrepancy exists and discuss our shared love of this hobby.
It’s fun, because the stakes are low. We don’t need to worry that whoever wins the debate will get to erase the games that the loser favors. But this all changes when we start talking about public policy. Suddenly everyone has skin in the game. Suddenly nobody can just agree to disagree and move on.
Be Careful What You Wish For
The final reason I don’t go around cheerleading for lootbox legislation is that I’m not convinced such a thing is feasible.
We frequently look at the moves made by Andrew Wilson and Bobby Kotick and marvel at how much treasure they waste, how many billions they squander on ill-informed knee-jerk acquisitions, how bad they are at using the resources they acquire, and how much they misunderstand their own IP and customers. These golf-playing executives are not gamers and frequently make blunders that are obvious to millions of us peasants.
And yet – for all of their ignorance – these executives know far more about games than the average septuagenarian lawmaker. The difference between Battlefront II and Hearthstone is very obvious to us right now, but it’s a subtle one.
Legalese – that awkward, seemingly stilted language that legislation is written in – is a fairly formal language. It’s not as formal as a programming language, but it’s a lot more formal than the casual, imprecise, you-know-what-I’m-talking-about language we use to discuss video games. Informally, you can have a sign that says, “No tall people allowed.”I’m not sure why you’re doing this or if it would count as descrimination, but let’s just assume you’re doing it for some unspecified Very Good Reason. That’s good enough for conversation, but if you’re writing a law then you’d need to define exactly what height qualifies as “tall”, how it will be measured, who will do the measuring, what the penalties will be if people fraudulently misrepresent their height, and who is going to be in charge of oversight and enforcement.
In a purely mechanical sense, the difference between Hearthstone card packs and Battlefield II lootboxes is very subtle and depends on a lot of outside knowledge regarding how these games work and how people engage with the material. Can you describe this difference formally, so that it can’t be misunderstood by non-gaming judges, misinterpreted or mis-applied by overzealous enforcement agencies, or sidestepped by clever lawyers?
It’s harder than you think!
What are the odds that your average bitterly divided, technologically illiterate government body can set aside their ongoing debates on life-and-death topics and author a law that can tease out the incredibly subtle difference between the harmful video game thing we hate and the harmless video game thing we’re okay with?
Hitting a Moving Target
Even if we somehow get legislation that lands in the magical Goldilocks zone, it would be trivial for EA to shift their design a little to remain technically compliant.
Let’s say we outlaw (or regulate) the sale of “Digital bundles that contain randomized items” for real-world money. That seems pretty sensible, right? I mean, Magic: the Gathering fans are kind of screwed, but let’s pretend everyone has decided we don’t care about them.
So the next week a designer at EA takes all of the drop tables and rewards that used to be given by lootboxes, and gives those items to an in-game boss. To fight the boss, you need a ticket. To get a ticket, you need to pay money. Lootboxes become lootbosses, which is the exact same problem except for these semantic differences that route around the wording of this hypothetical law.
Mechanically, this is identical to the lootbox problem: Pay money, get random stuff. The boss can be a trivial pushover to allow the player to do the fight over and over again very quickly, and the fight can end in colorful fireworks and a vaguely slot-machine style reveal of your winnings to make the whole thing “stream-friendly”.
The publishers can also dodge the regulations from the other side: You don’t buy lootboxes for real money. You can only buy lootboxes for some in-game currency. That currency is dropped in tiny, tiny amounts by mooks in the game. The amounts are so tiny that it would take a whole week of grinding to save up for a single lootbox. But! For real-world cash you can buy a single-use ticket to a dungeon where the mooks drop tons of this currency. A single fifteen-minute run of this dungeon can yield enough to buy (say) three lootboxes.
So maybe you think you’ll regulate the conversion of real-world currency to in-game currency? So next EA comes up with a system where the game dumps tons of in-game currency on you, the slot machine only accepts in-game currency, and you can’t buy in-game currency for money. BUT! You can’t get to the slot machineOr whatever visual thing they’re using to dispense random rewards. without paying money.
We can continue to add arbitrary steps in the chain to obfuscate the issue: Pay money to meet with an NPC who grants you entry to a place where you can fight a boss that drops a key that opens the door to… etc.
Sure, go ahead and speculate on how you would word the law that would outlaw this convoluted mess and somehow not outlaw (say) Diablo Expansions. After all, if I buy an expansion it gives me access to a new end-boss that drops loot when defeated.
Shamus, you’re over-thinking this. The key to fight the boss is a one-time use item. So just outlaw that.
Okay, now you buy a ticket that can be used five times.
Outlaw consumables then!
Nice. You just outlawed the pilot’s license, which is foundational to the in-game economy of EVE Online.
Okay then, just outlaw paying for anything that creates random drops.
You just outlawed all Borderlands DLC.
Then just outlaw games of chance that exist within a larger game, regardless of how the player accesses them.
Say goodbye to Gwent. You absolute monster.
Gwent isn’t COMPLETELY random! A lot of skill goes into that game!
Do you think EA is incapable of adding some small fig-leaf skill component to their loot boxes?
Stop being so obtuse! You know exactly what I’m talking about when I say “lootbox”!
Yes I do. I really do! But that’s not a definition we can use in court in The People vs. Battlefront III: Lootbox Jubilee.
You’re going out of your way to make this difficult.
I’m not MAKING it difficult. It IS difficult.
On one hand there’s the risk of outlawing harmless stuff that people like, and on the other hand is the army of highly-motivated corporate lawyers looking for the next exploit. Somehow this law must be worded in such a way as to thread a path between these two nebulous and ever-changing forces.
Sure, maybe lawmakers can solve this. I’m not saying it’s impossible. Back in my Dot-Com days, I got a tiny peek behind the veil that hides the laws that drive the SEC. I took a few points of sanity damage in the process, but I otherwise escaped unscathed. If that terrifyingly complex bundle of regulatory arcana can exist, then I suppose anything is possible. But I’m pretty cynical about the whole thing. I’m cynical enough that I can’t seriously go around with the attitude that “Legislation will save us!” You’re free to think that if you like and I’m not interested in trying to change your mind, it’s just not an attitude I can personally embrace.
I’m not saying you should give up and let Andrew Wilson build a casino for children. I’m not a lawyer or a polysci major. I could be wrong about everything I said about lawmaking above. Maybe you disagree and you think an American lawmaker born in 1940 will have the ability to sort out something this complex and esoteric, and that the law will get passed, it will be properly enforced, and that the publishers will quietly give up on all this gambling money and not spend years creating a game of semantic whack-a-mole.
That’s fine. I’m not saying you’re wrong. All I’m saying is I’m incredibly cynical about the process.
On top of that, I’m extremely against using my blog as a bully pulpit to advocate for public policy – even if it’s a policy that a majority of people would agree with. Slippery slopes, and all that. And I realize that it probably sounds like I’m arguing against legislation. But I’m trying not to. I’m just explaining why I have this non-committal stance on the issue. Go ahead and lobby for change if you think it’s a good idea. Make a petition. Put a little ribbon on your car. Make a hashtag. Call your representative. Whatever you feel you need to do, go right ahead. I’m not telling you to stop. I’m just explaining why I’m not cheering you on. I don’t know what the right answer is here, so I’m sticking to what I do know.
There are some additional confounding factors here that make everything really… interesting.
Confounding Factor #1
There’s currently an unexpressed rift in the pro-legislation rhetoric.
- Group A: Lootboxes exploit people and do Real Harm, and therefore they should be banned, full stop.
- Group B: Lootboxes are potentially harmful (particularly to kids) and should therefore be regulated the same way we regulate cigarettes, alcohol, and pornography.
Right now these two groups are nearly indistinguishable because they’re both visible as people saying “We should do something!” However, if the time ever came where someone was inclined to actually Do A Thing, these two groups would suddenly find themselves at odds.
I’m not going to explore the ramifications of trying to sort out THAT mess. I’m just saying that things would get to be that much more complex if / when we reach that stage.
Confounding Factor #2
The other confounding factor is the way retail distribution mucks everything up. Virtually everyone agrees that – regardless of how we feel about gambling for adults – gambling for children should not be a thing. Even people who are okay with lootboxes seem to agreeNot everyone of course. And it’s not like I did a rigorous study. I’m just following the rhetoric. that these things should be kept out of the hands of children.
In an ideal world, we have these three choices:
- Do nothing: Things stay on their current trajectory.
- Ban: Lootboxes are completely illegal.
- Regulate: Lootboxes are treated like cigarettes or other adult-only products.
There is a huge moral and legal difference between those last two. I don’t have any numbers to support this, but my assumption is that a majority of peopleThat is, a majority of people who are paying attention to this issue. favor #3, and a minority of people are split between the other two options.
The problem is that none of the major retailers are willing to carry games rated as Adults only. This means that #3 ends up being functionally identical to #2. If lootboxes are Adults only, then they can’t be sold in stores.
This means that publishers can’t afford to allow their games to be rated as Ao. Sure, you can sell just about anything through Steam, but retail sales still make up a non-trivial chunk of the market. Despite all the rhetoric about “publishers are making casinos for childrenThey’re actually making casinos for teenagers since these games are usually rated T for Teen, but whatever.”, it’s possible that the publishers are only doing that because it’s not feasible to make a casino for adults. After all, teenagers don’t have credit cardsYes, there are the horror stories about kids maxing out mommy’s credit card buying crap for a game, but the REAL target that publishers are aiming at is adults with lots of disposable income.. If you’re a publisher fishing for whales, then you’re fishing for adults who have jobs and poor impulse control.
Ironically, the scolds that run around condemning and protesting Wal-Mart for carrying certain video games are contributing to a world where it’s harder to draw a line between adult and teen content. There’s obviously a huge market for games with lots of sex, violence, and gamblingIf it was possible to get real-world drunk by playing a video game, people would want that too., and publishers obviously want to serve that market. But since the big box stores won’t carry Ao titles, there’s a huge pressure to weasel around the obstructionist policies by classifying their stuff as M.
If people stopped thinking of games as toys for children, then maybe Wal-Mart could put Ao titles on the shelf next to the vibrators, guns, cigarettes, booze, and unrated copies of Eyes Wide ShutFiguratively. I don’t think it makes organizational sense to put these items on the same shelf. Although it WOULD make my weekly shopping trips easier. they already carry. This infantilization of games ironically makes kids less safe.
This means that – from the publisher’s perspective – regulating lootboxes by explicitly saying such things must be marked as Adults only is functionally the same as outlawing them. Either way, they can’t sell their goods to consenting adults at retail outlets.
Games are gradually shifting to all-digital, so this might be a non-issue in a couple of years, but for now it’s another layer of complexity in this whole mess.
It Is… Inevitable
The point is that – to the degree that I understand how public policy works, I am not at all optimistic that legislation can solve this problem. The only thing I am confident about is the inevitability of reactionary backlash. So the weird tone I adopt on the topic is just a result of me trying to stick to what I know.
I do know that intervention is more or less inevitable. The publishers have been so outrageous, so brazen, so nakedly predatory, that it’s creating public outcry. That outcry is irresistible to the controversy-hungry media, which will attract lawmakers looking for an easy win in the hearts of the public.
You can think back to other recent controversies to see how quickly things can blow up. One week nobody cares, and a week later people are livid and calling for immediate action. All it takes is a really heart-rending storyKid from a poor neighborhood burns through $20k of money without his parents realizing, which means his genius big sister can no longer afford medical school. to land on a slow point in the news cycleSo, probably not this year. during a time when politicians are really looking for a way to raise their public profileDuring the fundraising stage of a midterm election. and we’ll end up with yet another ridiculous media circus.
I don’t know what the best thing is for society, but the very best thing Andrew Wilson could do for himself would be to go back to quietly running his little slot machines in the back room, as he did 10 years ago with Ultimate Team Mode in Madden and FIFA. Maybe legislation will put an end to lootboxes and maybe it won’t, but the eventual controversy will certainly mean the end of his career. Corporations LOVE it when they can demonstrate their noble intentions by doing something shallow and symbolic that doesn’t cost them any real money. The shareholders will be more than happy to sacrifice him to make the bad press go awayAll of this also applies to Activision, 2K Games, Take Two, and so on. I’m just picking on Wilson because he was the lootbox pioneer and his vigorous squandering of opportunity makes me personally crazy..
Get Ready… Fight!
I’m not even sure I should leave the comments open for this one. On one hand, I love analyzing the complexities of the “confounding factors” I discussed aboveIncluding ones that haven’t even dawned on me yet., but I also know that for everyone who enjoys theorycrafting this sort of thing, there are a half-dozen partisans who want to swagger in with, “Everyone who disagrees with me is evil!” maybe with a dash of “I don’t even see why this is a debate!” and perhaps with a twist of, “It’s simple, really…”. There is a non-trivial segment of the readership that:
- REALLY feels the need to argue public policy everywhere, all the time, and to drag every gaming discussion towards politics, and if you don’t let them piss all over the floor in your comments section then they call you a coward.
- Has nothing but disdain for the opposition, and loves to insinuate evil / bad motives and broad conspiracies onto the opposition.
- Has absolutely no idea how to argue politics in a persuasive manner and doesn’t even really grasp the viewpoint of the opposition.
These three attributes are highly correlated in my experience, and once you get a couple of these folks from opposing sides, their sniping will piss everyone else off and send the whole thread down the toilet.
But… what the heck. Let’s lift the normal prohibition on this sort of thing and see how long the thread can survive before I need to lock it.
Be good to each other out there. Remember that this is supposed to be fun.
 I’m not sure why you’re doing this or if it would count as descrimination, but let’s just assume you’re doing it for some unspecified Very Good Reason.
 Or whatever visual thing they’re using to dispense random rewards.
 Not everyone of course. And it’s not like I did a rigorous study. I’m just following the rhetoric.
 That is, a majority of people who are paying attention to this issue.
 They’re actually making casinos for teenagers since these games are usually rated T for Teen, but whatever.
 Yes, there are the horror stories about kids maxing out mommy’s credit card buying crap for a game, but the REAL target that publishers are aiming at is adults with lots of disposable income.
 If it was possible to get real-world drunk by playing a video game, people would want that too.
 Figuratively. I don’t think it makes organizational sense to put these items on the same shelf. Although it WOULD make my weekly shopping trips easier.
 Kid from a poor neighborhood burns through $20k of money without his parents realizing, which means his genius big sister can no longer afford medical school.
 So, probably not this year.
 During the fundraising stage of a midterm election.
 All of this also applies to Activision, 2K Games, Take Two, and so on. I’m just picking on Wilson because he was the lootbox pioneer and his vigorous squandering of opportunity makes me personally crazy.
 Including ones that haven’t even dawned on me yet.
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