Treasures in cyberspace

Being a game developer, I occasionally get asked about games by concerned parents and whether they're good for their kids. This is often in a Christian setting, just because this is when I'm most likely to be talking with parents who don't also happen to work at a games company. Up until Fortnite came along, this mostly consisted of reassuring them that although some games are unsuitable, the "Minecraft" thing their child is into is pretty wholesome. Whatever the game du jour, though, these days I do take the time to explain lootboxes to them and why they might want to be wary of their kids taking an interest in them. (If you've no idea what a lootbox is, see the footnotes[1].)

It's easy to see the parallels between lootboxes and gambling. Put money in, and you might get a big reward out. No big reward this time? Never mind, just put more money in the slot and we'll see what happens. The games industry has always heavily opposed the idea that lootboxes are gambling, for the obvious reason that they don't want the regulation that comes along with it, including restrictions on marketing them to children. And generally there are some differences when compared with traditional gambling: lootboxes usually always give you something when you open them, and the items do not — allegedly — have any real-world, cash value.

Here, though, things start to get a bit tricky. Back in 2018 the Netherlands decided that some games' lootboxes did constitute gambling because the items can be traded and exchanged for money outside the games. Then Belgium got involved and declared various games' lootboxes to be gambling because they're "games of chance". Both countries expressed concern about the effect of lootboxes' potentially addictive qualities, especially on children. Given that lootboxes haven't been considered gambling up until now (and still aren't, in most places) there's nothing stopping games companies targeting them at children and at the same time deploying as many psychological devices as they can lay their hands on to push people into spending. Valve eventually disabled lootboxes in those countries. At the end of last year the American FTC also announced it would take a look at lootboxes, so the USA may follow suit.

For my part, I'm inclined to agree that lootboxes should be considered gambling. Even in the cases where items can't be traded for cash in any way, either via an official channel like Steam or something more ad hoc, the items in the boxes clearly have value of some kind, otherwise nobody would be paying for them. And we know that some people are vulnerable to being sucked into unhealthy gambling habits, which is why gambling regulators police how gambling is marketed and presented to the user alongside making sure that gambling providers aren't cheating. Human nature being what it is, I'm reluctant to rely on everyone in the games industry acting responsibly to protect the vulnerable, and I'd like to see this whole area of the industry regulated. For example, the Netherlands told the infringing companies to remove "almost winning" effects designed to drive spending.

For example, take a look at the way Rocket League presents opening a lootbox. It's a big long string of potential rewards that whizz up the screen, with you winning whatever's in the middle of the screen when they stop. And if you win a common prize, it'll almost certainly be nestled between two much rarer prizes. Oh no! You were so close to winning! But as a software developer, I can tell you there's no way that the system is actually implemented by creating a long list of potential rewards, assembling them into a spinner, and giving it a push. That's much more complicated than it needs to be. It's much easier to give each prize a percentage chance of being won, getting the computer to roll you a random number to determine the prize, and then constructing the spinner as a purely cosmetic effect.[2] Which means, therefore, that someone has gone out of their way to create the feeling that you almost won, in the hope that it'll get you to want to try again.

A video of someone "almost" winning a very rare prize.
Image: Uploaded to Reddit by /u/SenatorVest

But my other concern about lootboxes, which comes from my Christian worldview, is what they contain. In general, lootboxes are much less contentious if they only contain cosmetic items. There's far less tolerance (at least in the West) for boxes that contain items that actually give a tangible in-game benefit, since this hands an advantage to whoever has the biggest wallet. But I'm not comfortable with boxes that contain nothing but cosmetics. Not because there's something inherently wrong about decorating your character (or car, or whatever) to look pleasant, in the same way that there's nothing inherently wrong about wearing clothes that suit you. But rather, in order to create a strong market for cosmetics (lootbox-delivered or otherwise), game developers have an incentive to cultivate the idea that appearance matters, that it has some bearing on our value as human beings, in order to increase our perception of the value of cosmetic items.

I remember one unpleasant meeting, many years ago (when the games industry was a bit less savvy and still referred to cosmetics by the less flattering, but arguably more accurate, name of "vanity items") where a monetization manager came to talk to us about adding cosmetics to the game we were working on. And they specifically said that they wanted players to see others using these items, and to then think "ooh, that's cool, I want to be cool, so I need that." And then, they happily stated, we could release some more items a few months later and people would need to buy those as well in order to stay cool. I'm pretty sure the phrase "Oh no, I'm not cool any more!" came up. The monetization strategy was, in effect, to hand people a bucket with a hole in the bottom and convince them they were only cool when it was full, and to then charge to use the tap. The aim was to push people to see their value in something they had to buy from us.

Not every game developer wants to make games that way. I was certainly vocal about it, and to their credit the company I was working for was willing to accommodate me and make sure I didn't have to work on that feature[3], and thankfully in the end the plan didn't come to pass anyway (which isn't something I can take credit for). And again, human nature being what it is I don't trust every developer to not think like that. And I think there are two issues here — first, that just as some people are particularly vulnerable to the psychological triggers of traditional gambling (both the mechanics of the gambling, like the "almost winning" issue, and the allure of the potential payout), there will be some who are similarly vulnerable to psychological trickery in the vein of cosmetics and appearance. Unscrupulous devs can exploit the insecurities and vulnerabilities of some to pressure them into high levels of spending that they may struggle to actually afford. And if the cosmetics are stuck in lootboxes and doled out at random rather than being purchased in a straightforward manner, the opportunity to exploit is greater.

And the other problem is this — heavily marketing cosmetics (which some games are entirely funded by) pushes the idea that our value is derived from how other people see us. That our human worth is something granted fleetingly by other human beings. And as a Christian I can't in good conscience back that worldview. Although I don't think running around trying to force people who aren't Christians to live as though they were is helpful, I do want to present a better message. Our value lies in our being created by, loved by, and made for a relationship with God. The Creator of the entire universe, filled with billions of galaxies, thinks that we're the best thing about it. If you read the Genesis 1 account, at the end of each day God sees that what he's made is "good", but once he gets round to creating us, it is "very good". Because we reject God despite all he's given us, and embrace evil, we "become worthless" (Romans 3:12). But God didn't give up on us at that point — despite us being fundamentally unlovely, Jesus came into the world to win us back:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

We are made in God's image, to rule over his universe and reflect his glory. We have a status that no other part of what he's made shares, and he loves us in spite of our rebellion against him. We are his treasure. This is what gives us our value, our worth. It's inherent to who we are. We don't have to buy it, or earn it, or have it bestowed by another human being. And that means that there is nothing else that is able, in the end, to give us value, and pushing people to look for value in other places is cruel.

I find this truth hard to remember — I'm far too interested in what people think of me, how many social media likes I get, and so on. But this makes not pushing the wrong message about value even more important, because looking in the wrong places for our self-worth comes naturally to us.

So, what's the solution? As with traditional gambling, it's probably not an outright ban, but regulation. There's nothing inherently wrong with gambling itself — if I get together with a few friends, we each bring £10, and we spend the evening playing poker, then even if I leave with nothing I've effectively spent a tenner on an evening with my friends, a sum of money I wouldn't get a lot of change from if I bought two pints down the pub. If gambling became an irresponsible use of the money God had given me to look after, or reflected an idolization of money and dreams of wealth, then there would be a problem. In the same vein, buying a hat for a game character or even opening a lootbox isn't inherently wrong, it's the messaging behind the push to get me to do so that's the issue. If lootboxes were regulated as gambling, then the scope of games companies to push that message and deploy exploitative tactics, especially to children, would be limited.

If lootbox regulation made them unattractive to developers, we would at least arrive at the point where developers are charging flat fees for individual items (with the odd bulk discount thrown in). There's still the incentive to push people to see their value in the cosmetics they own, but at least the gambling aspect will have gone away. As for the cosmetics themselves, there's plenty of evidence from the "old" days of Facebook games like Farmville that consumers learn to recognize and avoid aggressive marketing of hollow digital goods. Convincing players to even install free-to-play games is getting more and more expensive. If that leads to more aggressive monetization in order to claw back the costs, putting off players even more, the system may well descend into a spiral[4]. Given that the idea that we can find our value in how much digital stuff we buy is a lie that can't satisfy us, the more heavily it's pushed and then found unable to deliver on its promise, the more players will reject it.

Nothing on this earth will last, it will eventually all pass away. It's true of physical things, but it's also true of information, the 1s and 0s that we can pull out of a lootbox and adorn our game characters with. To push people to make these things their treasure is cruel, especially if it's used as a mechanism to extract money from the vulnerable. Jesus warned us not to put our trust in physical things:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Matthew 6:19-21

The intangible existence of digital items might enable them to avoid physical decay, but they still won't stick around forever.

"Store up for yourself treasures in cyberspace" is a cruel message. I hope that governments will step in to protect the vulnerable, and that players will increasingly see it for the awful advice it is.

  1. Lootboxes are a way of delivering randomized items in online games. Generally the boxes are either earned slowly for free (with the option to purchase more), or they're an entirely paid affair. Although you may be given a list of what might in the boxes, and roughly what rarity each item is (common, uncommon, rare, etc), it's impossible to know the exact odds of getting a particular item (except in China, where a law was passed a while back requiring drop rates to be published). The amount of money you might need to spend in order to get a particular item is therefore unknown. ↩︎

  2. Doing it that way is actually considered good software design, from a purely technical standpoint. The way you choose the prize is separated from the way you present the prize, which means changing one of those steps isn't made more difficult by being entangled with the other. ↩︎

  3. I did consider leaving and finding a company that didn't want to monetize that way, but since all companies are run by human beings, trying to find a company where everything was run perfectly and nothing untoward ever happened would be an impossible task — all I could really do was ensure that what I was working on was something I could do with a clear conscience. ↩︎

  4. That's certainly the prediction of Ramin Shokrizade, who writes a lot about free-to-play issues on Gamasutra. He is, shall we say, extremely self-assured, which comes across in his writing, but he makes a fairly compelling case, in my opinion. ↩︎