Buying loot boxes akin to gambling, say experts

Singapore currently has no laws against loot boxes.
Singapore currently has no laws against loot boxes.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Loot boxes are lucrative for game developers but their use is akin to gambling, say experts and those in the industry.

The boxes are virtual goodie bags that give players random in-game rewards, and can be purchased either with currencies in the game or indirectly with real cash.

Counsellors and cyber wellness experts have said loot boxes are linked to problem gambling because of the "risk-reward factor" and "rush" inherent in their mechanisms.

While Singapore currently has no laws against loot boxes, they have been banned by some countries like Belgium. The Ministry of Education said in October that primary and secondary school students here may be taught about the ills of loot boxes.

Despite the controversy, industry experts say game developers have continued to include them for profitability.

Mr Yasser Ismail, who runs a professional Fifa e-sports team and is a member of the eSports & Gaming Interest Group at the Interactive Advertising Bureau South-east Asia and India, said: "The microtransactions might not be large amounts, but they add up to large sums if games have enough popularity."

The associate vice-president of strategy for Asia-Pacific at media agency Essence added: "From a gamer's perspective, these loot box purchases are attractive especially if they are performance-enhancing. Gamers always want to be the best they can possibly be, and if paying these amounts makes them better players and gives them an easier route, they're willing to do it."

Mr Lai Tuck Weng, founder of marketing consultancy Edge Digital, which specialises in gaming, technology and mobile apps, agreed, saying that with the freemium model used in many of these games, game developers have found ways to "convert" players who are playing for free to paying ones.

He added that developers ride on psychological methods to urge players to spend, especially when some games include player-versus-player elements to increase competitiveness, and sell performance-enhancing items without which players might not be able to win games.

Mr Allan Simonsen, co-founder and technical director at Boomzap Entertainment as well as International Game Developers Association Singapore Chapter coordinator, said developers continue to use loot boxes in their games despite the controversies simply because of the money they bring in.

"Free-to-play games historically monetise either pleasure or pain. Loot boxes are entirely for pleasure, since the entire point is to monetise the joy of opening a surprise," he said.

Ms Cathy Que, founder of two gaming-related companies, YDY CG and Vector Gems Tech, said she felt it was important for parents to keep abreast of gaming issues.

The mother of two teenagers said stopping children from playing games may cause them to feel left out socially.

Instead, she said, regulating a child's game time and setting a budget for in-game purchases is a better approach, adding that children may be deterred from purchasing loot boxes themselves after multiple failed attempts to get valuable items from them.

The Singapore Games Association, founded in August last year to act as a trade association for the local games industry, said that while there are currently no local regulations of game aspects with an element of chance, it believes that "when it comes to public education on cyber wellness and responsible gaming, the ecosystem will need to work together, from the individual level to private sector and if need be, the relevant authorities".

Ng Keng Gene

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2021, with the headline 'Buying loot boxes akin to gambling, say experts'. Subscribe