Navigating the Digital: Exploring Loot Boxes, Booster Packs, and the ever-Shifting Landscape of Gaming Monetization
In recent years, the convergence of gaming and gambling elements has raised significant concerns in the world of gaming and among regulatory bodies. This convergence has also been called the ‘gamblification’ of games and environments. At the center of this debate are often loot boxes, a contentious feature that has sparked numerous discussions on their impacts of ethics, game design, game enjoyment, and, of course, regulation. However, the debate often lacks a deeper analysis of the mechanics of different products that fall under the umbrella of ‘loot boxes’.
In our recently published article, we explore the similarities and differences between digital booster packs in Magic Arena, their physical counterparts in the popular card game Magic: The Gathering, and loot boxes in other popular digital games. Through this examination, we shed light on the complexities surrounding these monetization methods and advocate both for more informed regulation, and discussion around the nuances of these mechanics and platforms.
The Gamblification Phenomenon
The convergence of gaming and gambling has been accelerated by the introduction of loot boxes, which offer randomized in-game items in exchange for real money or time spent playing. Research has indicated a troubling link between excessive loot box consumption and problematic consumption behaviors, including gambling-like tendencies. This has led to several attempts to regulate loot boxes, with many countries considering them a form of gambling that requires stricter oversight.
Arguments against regulating loot boxes often draw parallels with other unregulated game formats, such as collectible card games (CCGs) like Magic: The Gathering. However, these arguments often lack a thorough examination of the mechanics and impact of these products. To address this gap in knowledge, our article compares booster packs in Magic Arena, physical card packs in Magic: The Gathering, and digital loot boxes in other games.
Comparing the Monetization Methods
- Consumption Patterns:
- Loot boxes and digital booster packs both exploit the affordances of the digital platforms they are contained in, encouraging increased spending and prolonged engagement through both in-game adverts, and limited time offers. Often player data is also used in what are called ‘pity-timers’ to ensure that players get at least some rarer items at times.
- Physical card packs, while collectible and randomized, have shown not to have the same psychological impact as their digital counterparts. The absence of constant advertisement and immediate access offered through digital platforms, along with no possibilities of adjustable item acquirement rates differentiate them from loot boxes and digital booster packs.
- Visual Appearance:
- Loot boxes and digital booster packs often employ flashy graphics, animations, and sounds to create a sense of excitement and anticipation, mimicking the sensory experience of traditional gambling.
- Physical card packs rely on tactile interactions and the satisfaction of opening a physical package, which lacks the same level of sensory stimulation as their digital counterparts.
- Contextual Factors:
- Loot boxes and digital booster packs can be found in various games and platforms, making them easily accessible to players, including minors. Some games also allow players to sell content gained from these crates, packs, and boxes to other players, incentivizing a financial motive.
- Physical card packs require players to visit stores or purchase them online, creating additional barriers that limit access and potential exposure to vulnerable populations. On the other hand, secondary markets often evolve naturally around card games, allowing the players to purchase individual cards without a need for randomized content. However, as with loot boxes, these cards still enter circulation through cracking open packs.
- While loot boxes have come under scrutiny for their potential gambling-like nature, physical card packs have largely escaped similar scrutiny due to their long-standing presence in the market, and a lack of evidence showing problematic behavior associated with purchasing physical packs.
- Digital booster packs in games like Magic Arena, however, present a unique challenge. Are they, or are they not comparable to loot boxes? The game does not have a secondary market, and contents from the game cannot be sold outside of the game, making engagement with the packs quite essential. Players need them to compete effectively in many of the game’s game modes and events, creating a “pay-to-win” mechanic. This essential role in gameplay raises questions about their regulation and impact on player experiences. This is especially heightened by the events offered by the game on its platform. One such is the Arena Open, which boasts possibilities of acquiring actual monetary gains through competition. Naturally, Magic Arena states that minors cannot take part in this event. However, this type of event readily advertised through the game client to anyone playing quite possibly normalizes the concept of ‘high-risk, high-reward’ type of gameplay.
Conclusion: The Need to be Informed and Transparent
Our article reveals that digital booster packs in Magic Arena bear resemblance to both loot boxes and their physical counterparts. Like loot boxes, they share design elements afforded by their environment, with visual resemblance to traditional gambling elements, and encouragement of spending on limited-time offers and continued engagement. And like booster packs, they have a clear and direct impact on gameplay, making them a critical component of the “pay-to-win” model.
With the current state of research showing no association between physical card pack expenditure and problem gambling, we too argue against the notion that loot boxes and physical booster packs are equivalent, and thus should be regulated (or left unregulated) in the exact same manner. The constant presence of digital environments, seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, provides game developers with the opportunity for continuous advertising, as well as time-sensitive promotions and events that demand your participation. These factors can naturally engender problematic behaviors among users, enticing them to engage and spend excessively. And obviously, this type of design is not limited to games, but rather all forms of digital media that thrive on user attention and engagement.
To address these issues surrounding the ‘gamblification’ of digital games and platforms, we suggest focusing on the need to inform both users and potential guardians of the many forms of randomized monetization methods, as well as demand a need to increase transparency of these designs, particularly in environments frequented by younger or more vulnerable players.
In conclusion, this research contributes to the ongoing efforts to create a meaningful and practical taxonomy of monetization strategies in contemporary video games. By understanding the nuances of these strategies, we can better protect players from potential harm and ensure that the gaming industry continues to evolve in a responsible and ethical manner. The gamblification of gaming is a complex issue, and thoughtful regulation is crucial to strike the right balance between entertainment and consumer protection.
For a link to a video presentation of the article, see here.
For full details, see below.
Topias Mattinen, Joseph Macey, and Juho Hamari. 2023. A Ruse by Any Other Name: Comparing Loot Boxes and Collectible Card Games Using Magic Arena. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 7, CHI PLAY, Article 401 (November 2023), 27 pages.
The convergence of gaming and gambling, known as “gamblification”, has been a topic of increasing interest in recent years. Loot boxes, i.e., rewards offering randomized content in exchange for money or time, have been a particular focal point. Research has shown links between excessive loot box consumption and problematic consumption behaviors, leading to several attempts to regulate loot boxes. Arguments against regulation have been that loot boxes are conceptually and structurally akin to other unregulated game formats, such as collectible card games. However, this discourse is often without deeper analysis of the mechanics of different products at the center of convergence. Therefore, to add to this knowledge, this article examines the similarities and differences between booster packs in Magic Arena, their physical counterparts in Magic: The Gathering, and loot boxes included in digital games. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which these booster packs compare to loot boxes in terms of consumption patterns, visual appearance, contextual factors, and regulation. Analysis reveals that digital booster packs in Magic Arena differ from both loot boxes and physical card packs, both due to their direct impact on gameplay, and their unique features afforded by the digital environment in which they exist.