Listen: Dr Marcus Carter in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
An expert in gaming research warns that the ‘loot boxes’ in popular games are harmful and that there is a great deal of crossover between games and gambling in terms of not just the technology and psychology used to develop them but also in the negative effects on users.
Loot boxes are the feature in games that allows players to either make purchases (with real world dollars) or to earn coins or other desirable virtual objects.
The loot takes a range of forms and includes things like accessories to enhance a game play avatar (weapons, abilities) or gives you the ability to play as a popular character such as Darth Vader in Star Wars Battlefront or to be a talented player like Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo in the FIFA soccer game.
In some games (Wordscapes for instance) you can buy or earn coins to give hints or other help to solve the level you are on.
Some of the games, especially mobile games use a pricing model called freemium. It is a strategy by which a product or service (typically a digital offering or an application such as software, media, games or web services) is provided free of charge, but money (premium) is charged for additional features, services, or virtual (online) or physical (offline) goods.
Dr Marcus Carter, lecturer in Digital Cultures at the University of Sydney, is an expert on the social, persuasive and educational dimensions and experiences of game play. He is a former President and current board member of the Digital Games Research Association of Australia.
On Open House Dr Carter commented on the release of the report of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee ‘Loot Box Inquiry’. The committee’s inquiry began in June 2018 and reported at the end of November 2018.
The committee was asked to ‘ look into the extent to which gaming micro-transactions for chance-based items, sometimes referred to as ‘loot boxes’, may be harmful. \In looking at the loot box issue the committee was asked to look particularly at:\
- whether the purchase of chance-based items, combined with the ability to monetise these items on third-party platforms, constitutes a form of gambling; and
- the adequacy of the current consumer protection and regulatory framework for in-game micro transactions for chance-based items, including international comparisons, age requirements and disclosure of odds.”
Candy Crush is a popular game Dr Carter has researched.
Loot box regulation
Dr Carter made a submission to the Senate inquiry, in which he argued that ultimately many current micro-transaction practices – such as loot boxes – are harmful, if not necessarily gambling, and should be more heavily regulated.
More research needed
Commenting on the Senate’s ‘Loot Box Report’, Dr Carter says “Overall, this is a comprehensive report that identifies all the pertinent issues, but it is clear the committee is held back by the lack of objective academic research into the ways loot boxes are actually configured by developers and the longer-term impacts on players, particularly children.
Outdated definition of gambling
“Focusing on whether loot boxes meet the historical and potentially outdated definition of ‘gambling’ in the Interactive Gambling Act 2001 seems misguided, considering how persuasive games are at altering subjective value. Ultimately this is what a video game is – a series of unnecessary obstacles, that the game persuades us to care very deeply about.
Need to see ‘under-the-hood’
“I hope that the comprehensive review of loot boxes led by the Department of Communications and the Arts recommended in the report is able to reveal exactly how these systems are configured ‘under-the-hood’, something we currently know little about. Our lack of understanding about how these systems actually work limits the capacity for research to identify and understand potential harms.”
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