Forcing Gamers to Gamble: The Star Wars Battlefront II loot boxes debate
When Star Wars Battlefront II (2017) (SWBFII) released on 17 November there was a huge backlash from the gamer community surrounding the implemented loot boxes and micro transactions in general. In SWBFII the gamer plays against other players as soldiers in the Star Wars universe. The player can unlock powerful big name characters like Yoda and Darth Vader. They can access these characters by playing the game or buying them with real money. With the real world currency the player can buy loot boxes which have a random chance to contain the sought after big name characters. The main controversy was that it was incredibly hard to unlock those characters by only playing the game and players were more or less forced to use real world currency to unlock said characters. The game community considered this to be unfair, the common thought was that players should be able to get everything from the game once they bought the game. The case was that interesting parts of the game were seemingly only accessible by spending money. This resulted in a big gap between the players who paid, and those who didn’t. The paying players had access to the more powerful and interesting parts of the game and because of that had more power in the game.
The criticism didn’t only spark a debate amongst gamers, the Belgium government criticised EA, who is the publisher of the game, for the implantation of loot boxes. Because loot boxes would promote gambling amongst younger gamers. All the backlash resulted in in surge in the stocks of EA. And after half a year EA decided to changed the loot box system.
The loot boxes debate is interesting because it shows that a small part of the gameplay can have a huge impact on the reception, even outside of the game environment. Games have an ethical responsibility towards their players and their mental health. The debate also shows that the game industry forces their players directly to spend money, instead of using more up to date tactics like nudging. More on that later.
The first criterion is that loot boxes in games are not treated as serious as their offline (gambling centred) counterparts. Loot boxes are not new. Maple Story (2003) implemented loot boxes back in 2004. But loot boxes as part of the gameplay got big in 2017 with Overwatch (2016). The loot boxes industry will generate an approximate revenue of thirty billion dollars this year. This immense spending on loot boxes and the Star Wars controversy have brought the negative nature of loot boxes into the mainstream spotlight. Because of the random nature loot box rewards and the money that needs to be paid to buy them, loot boxes resemble gambling. Some countries, mostly Asian, have therefore labelled loot boxes as gambling and regulate them that way (Griffiths) The problem with the gambling aspect, is that gambling can lead to social and psychological problems (Zendle and Cairns 3) Research has shown that real life gambling and the use of loot boxes are not all that different. Loot boxes can lead to the same problems as other ways of gambling can. Therefore, loot boxes should be regulated according to gambling regulations (17) And in the case of SWBFII, EA didn’t seem to treat the loot boxes as ethical as they should have done.
However, gamers weren’t only outraged because of the gambling related problems. They were also discontent with the disbalance caused by the loot boxes. Gamers could get ahead of other gamers by paying real world currency, which was considered unfair. If the loot boxes contain only items that do not impact gameplay, like cosmetic items , there doesn’t seem to be a problem with the loot boxes. Games like Runescape (2001) and League of Legends (2010), contain these kind of loot boxes and have never sparked a debate about them. In this case players are nudged towards spending money, but they don’t need to. Nudging is a mild push towards a certain direction, but in the end the freedom of choice isn’t taken away (Thaler and Sunstein 2).
The main focus of SWBFII is on the multiplayer. So fairness comes from given each player the same tools to win a competitive game, everyone should be able to win. However, the loot boxes in SWBFII seem to disrupt the fairness of the (competitive) game. As a study of card games shows, balancing a game can be very tricky. The power in most card games lies with the player who has bought the most cards. The more cards you buy, the bigger the chance of a high and powerful card, which makes it easier to win. This resulted in players who had the most money in having the most and most powerful cards. For these players winning was easier (Ham) The same goes for SWBFII, the most powerful characters are bought, or forcefully won by spending a lot of money. Making the money spending players more powerful than other players. This negatively impacted the game.
The game community has a need for fairness. This shows in the popularity of a game. Because the more fair and balanced a video game is, the more popular it gets (Wu 392). The loot box debate shows that the community gets outraged when the balance is clearly disrupted.
The controversy surrounding the loot boxes debates shows us several things. Firstly, a small gameplay element can hugely influence reception and affect sales and even question governmental regulations and ethics. Secondly, it is made clear that gamers can’t be forced to spend money just by the promise of big names. They want to feel in control of the game. It is clear that video game industry seems to be lagging behind on digital steps that have been made by other digital media. Most digital media doesn’t force its users, it nudges them in a certain direction.
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