If you’ve been following the lockbox/lootbox controversy over the last couple of weeks (or last multiple years, ahem), then you know that opponents of the practice in online games seldom actually argue “for the children” since let’s face it, the MMORPG playerbase skews well into adulthood. Adults are the ones being affected.
Academic Ramin Shokrizade – well-known for his scholarly economic articles and recent treatise on how MMOs are dying because of poor design rather than insufficient demand – has nevertheless jumped into the fray with a similar argument, suggesting that in declaring lootboxes not gambling and refusing to intervene, the ESRB is effectively “promoting children’s gambling.”
In his new article on Gamasutra, Shokrizade says that the ESRB’s statement about lootboxes not being gambling connotes a misunderstanding about what an “element of chance” actually is.
Using a longform example about bread and pretzels that you probably need to read in full, he explains that while actual legal gambling institutions use a government-regulated “truly random” model in their games of chance, unregulated online games are currently using a combination of models that are much dodgier, including a “rigged” model he says is most common. Worse still is his accusation that companies (like Facebook) are employing (and will continue to employ at greater rates) “psychometric modeling” — in a nutshell, they can model whether you’ll keep buying lockboxes (or what have you) compulsively until you win or give up after two, and they do it based on demographic information gathered about you. And then they customize whether you “win” or not based on those predictions. Which is starting to sound not particularly random at all, certainly not in the “legit casino” sense.
“The ESRB, after talking to industry, told us ‘This isn’t the gambling you are looking for,’ and used their Jedi Mind Trick on consumers,” he says, obliquely, if I read him right, accusing the organization of profiting from its immobility. He also touches on China’s regulation of gacha mechanics and how Blizzard was forced into a mild retreat because of it – but only a mild one.
“I use Overwatch as an example here not because this is the only such product. It is possibly the biggest product and as such it is the alpha trend setter. Other developers will follow the lead of the alpha. Chinese regulators, despite their best intentions, got gamed. American regulators did nothing other than open up a pretzel factory. The next move is on the part of EU regulators, who seem to be approaching the situation cautiously but deliberately. I warned them in 2013 when they summoned me to the ICPEN summit in Panama that they would be playing regulatory Whack-a-Mole with our industry for years to come, and they are finally realizing just what I meant. I am going to pull up a chair and watch the show, while I eat my popcorn. This show has been going on for years now but it can’t go on forever. I’m guessing it lasts longer than Benny Hill but not as long as Dr. Who.”