If this sounds shitty, that’s because it is. The ESRB recently told us that it doesn’t see loot boxes as gambling because players “always guaranteed to receive in-game content.” I find this assessment absurd. Games offer wide rosters of characters and run limited time events to create rarity that drives purchases. Just because you get something, doesn’t mean you aren’t taking a gamble. I believe the ESRB is making an academic distinction to avoid acknowledging the issue and am skeptical of their assessment given that they were created by the Entertainment Software Association, a trade association dedicated to the business interests of game publishers.


The argument surrounding Shadow of War and Battlefront II has largely focused on the fact that their loot boxes affect gameplay. For instance, the boxes in Battlefront II have drawn criticism because they are the only means of gaining “star cards,” equippable boosters that affect player stats and weaponry. In a statement yesterday, EA clarified that the best items in the game would not be tied to loot boxes. Still, the idea that players might “pay to win” and upset the game’s balance struck a nerve. Loot boxes for cosmetics were fine but boxes that affected gameplay were a bridge too far. This is as arbitrary as the ESRB’s position.

Whether they dole out cosmetics or gameplay-affecting items, loot boxes of any sort exist for the purpose of exploiting players. Whether it’s offering the chance to get Symmetra’s new skin or get a better rifle in Battlefront II, the only reason the loot box exists is to prey on the economically vulnerable. You are not a valued player; you are a statistic on a spreadsheet. You are red or black ink. Loot boxes certainly aren’t there for fun. They have always been designed for the purpose of making sure that a company turns a profit.


To some, loot boxes may be a gameplay issue or a consumerist concern. To me, they’re far more seriously a moral issue. I know, because I have fallen for them. I don’t know how else to say this, but I have a gambling problem. I didn’t find this out at a casino. I found this out playing games.

It started with the 2014 mobile game Final Fantasy Record Keeper. It was the first gachapon game I played, and I loved it. I was working as a barista at the time and it was a great way to pass time. The game offers bite-sized RPG battles waged by characters who could be equipped with armor and weapons that granted special abilities. That gear came from a loot draw that required in-game currency. The game gives currency called mythril for clearing battles and for logging in. Get enough mythril and you “draw” for new gear without spending a dime. But as new in-game events offered iconic weapons and armor for a limited time, I gave in and spent money to try and get them. When a powerful new weapon was released for Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud, I bought a heap of in-game currency and spent it until probability favored me and I got it. As new weapons and armor were released, I began to do this more often. Sometimes it was because I liked that character, other times it was because the item was powerful and important to the meta-game. I don’t care to estimate how much I spent on Record Keeper but I will admit that it got to the point that I was actually spending cash on iTunes cards so that the payments wouldn’t show in my credit card history.

Source: YouTube

Final Fantasy Record Keeper runs an animation when you draw for new items that is a thing of beauty. I mean that. It is made to be beautiful. It is a meticulously-crafted display of magical orbs, bouncy string music, classic Final Fantasy sounds, and moogles. It’s awesome, and whenever I think of it, I get sick.


Eventually, I backed away from Record Keeper. I don’t play it as much, but other gacha games still draw me in. I play a lot of Fire Emblem Heroes and Fate: Grand Order. These games allow you to spend in game currency on heroes for your roster. The best are often in limited time events. Some are incredibly rare; the chance for a five star hero in Fate:GO rests at around 1%. I have three, and I have no clue how much money I lost in the process.

I’m actually pretty lucky. I play these games enough to grind out currencies to summon for free. I’ve actually gotten some great stuff on free summons from my gacha games. But even in that minority, I have plenty that were the result of spending my own money. Here’s the really fucked up thing: while I can arguably afford this addiction (and, really, I can’t) plenty of people who have started up with loot boxes or gacha games can’t afford it at all. They know it, but I promise you plenty of them are logging into Overwatch right now to get those Halloween skins.


When you go to a casino, they give you chips. When I log into Fire Emblem Heroes, they give me orbs. This isn’t a problem that started with Shadow of Mordor. It is something that has been a cornerstone of games for years now. Pull that lever and you’ll realize that these boxes are designed to fuck you over and take your cash. For every person who can step away, plenty of people can’t. It’s a system that preys on addiction, built upon mountains of research on how best to trick people into letting companies rob them.

I still play my gacha games. I still play Overwatch. I write about those games here. I think they’re fun. But we need to acknowledge what loot boxes are. They’re slot machines in everything but name, meticulously crafted to encourage player spending and keep them on the hook.


The problem isn’t just that games cost more to make or that loot boxes might affect multiplayer balance. The problem is that I can’t delete these games. The problem is that I’m not the only one. And that’s exactly what publishers are counting on.