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OPINION: ‘Loot crates’ are a form of gambling and should be regulated

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Opinion writer Stephen Sponhour argues the government should take measures to crack down on video game ‘loot crates’, which he claims are a form of gambling.

The end goal of any company is to maximize profits. Video game companies are no exception, and many are willing to cross ethical boundaries for the sake of their bottom line.

The sketchiest and most common tactic these game companies resort to is an in-game item system that essentially functions as a virtual casino, all while skirting around US gambling laws. I stumbled across this scam playing one of my favorite games, Rocket League. Psyonix, the game’s developer, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to borderline gambling.

When players level up in Rocket League, they win “crates”. These crates can be unlocked with in-game “keys” ($1.49 each, or 5 for $5), or through an hours-long process of unlocking decryptors. Once unlocked, the crate functions as a roulette wheel and selects one random, virtual item for the player to win. These items include paintjobs for the player’s car, various tires, as well as different car styles.

Some of these items can be extremely valuable to collectors, and an independent market exists for their sale. My inspiration for writing this article was discovering that I had won an item valued at $130. It was a cool car, no doubt, but certainly not cooler than $130 worth of groceries. I posted the item for sale on reddit and found a buyer within 3 hours.

Making easy money from Rocket League should have made me its biggest fan. But something about the situation didn’t sit right — it was gambling that anyone could participate in. Just spend a little money for a chance to win something valuable, even though the odds are stacked against the player.

Sure, I know not to buy key after key, opening crates hoping to unlock that valuable item. An 11-year-old armed with nothing but their parents’ credit card and a desire for virtual treasure is a different story.

The consequences that can result are more dire than just wasting Mom and Dad’s money. According to a recent study conducted by the Australian Environment and Communications Reference Committee (ECRC), those who participate in these crate systems run into the exact same problems that gambling addicts do — overspending and constantly chasing the psychological high of winning.

To a human brain, the feelings of winning valuable Rocket League tires and winning at a slot machine are one and the same.

If the two are so similar, then why is one regulated and not the other? In some places, such as the Netherlands, the system is already illegal. In the United States, the reasoning for it still being legal is questionable. According to the ESRB (the organization in charge of policing game content), loot crates are not considered gambling  because the player always wins something.

Only a tiny percentage of items that a player can win are more valuable than the keys required to obtain them, but since these consolation prizes exist, companies get around the law.

There is nothing morally wrong with adults gambling, but it isn’t adults that are being targeted. It’s the section of the games’ player base made up of children that are the most vulnerable. The government shouldn’t expect 11 year olds to understand the consequences of gambling, and it certainly shouldn’t let them learn the hard way.

Although this article focuses on Rocket League, there are other games that are guilty of this predatory tactic. Fortnite, DOTA 2, and Counter Strike also use similar systems to navigate around gambling laws.

Until lawmakers crack down on predatory corporations (keep dreaming, right?) it falls on gamers to use their financial clout to discourage companies from taking advantage of players. Don’t buy Fortnite gliders, or a Rocket League Battle Pass, or Counter Strike gun skins.

Don’t reward their bad behavior with more profit, and our amazing gaming industry will be much healthier for it.

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