Loot Boxes have a fascination with turning gamers into gamblers

(Pic: Virtual items are being used to gamble on online sites. Credit: Liam Terry)

Digital items inside some popular multiplayer game titles are being used as a way to create online gambling sites, Liam Terry reports

Video games, such as any entertainment industry, is immensely popular and has a estimated £5.11bn market value according to a study conducted in 2017. Whilst it’s only natural for game companies and publishers wanting to establish a successful business in the field of gaming, new methods have been tried to find ways of making more money. This need for making more money has lead to a method of glorified gambling being incorporated into video games with the goal of getting people who play these games hooked and keep buying in again and again.

A recent trend in mainstream games has taken over by storm and has lead to constant debate all over the world over legal concerns. This trend, known collectively as “Loot Boxes” (though some games will refer to these as “Crates” and “Cases”) has amassed in almost any current popular mainstream game especially multiplayer titles in recent years.

But just what are Loot Boxes, and how has an in-game system of a video game now been put in the spotlight in the mainstream media? The term “Loot Box” refers to an in-game virtual container, either gained for free or purchased with real money, and can reward the opener with virtual items, that usually serve some function in-game, the most popular being different digital looks for assets in the game, for example in-game weapons. 

This is becoming more of a serious issue in video games, especially of those games that younger audiences will pick up. “Gambler’s fallacy” is what Grant, a psychology graduate, has described this system in games as, along with an innate feeling of “I didn’t win this time, but I will eventually”. Behaviour that would be associated with a casino, and not around a gaming platform.

In itself, it sounds harmless and just a way to show off in-game to other players by having rarer items. In reality, its created one of the biggest online gambling monopolies in history and has swept over the internet and getting millions of people involved, even those who are under the age of 18.

A loot box from the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, referred to “cases” in this particular game.

How these virtual items are chosen once the container is opened is randomised, with some instances having items rarer than others. This is the first step to getting people hooked and to start gambling some of their money away; for a chance to obtain a rarer digital item. 

It’s all based off chance, luck of the draw to what kind of item you can obtain. On average in this particular game, keys cost roughly £1.80 to open a single crate. Then, you’ll get picked a random “skin” (which refers to the look or pattern of the item). Skins are given different colours and “wears” (such as looking brand new or completely roughed up) when unboxed, meaning some skins will be naturally rarer than others and worth more depending on their quality.

These skins have a real value associated with them, however these items have passed through many legal complaints under the guise that they’re not real money themselves, and because there would be extra steps needed to turn them into real money, therefore the use of digital items to gamble with isn’t considered gambling, instead referred to as “skin betting“.

Valve, the creators of CS:GO also own the PC gaming platform known as Steam, which also hosts a community market where players can sell in-game items where the money is transferred into a “digital” wallet where it resides and can only be used to buy stuff on the platform, and money can be added manually as well.

These skins, can sell anywhere from 3p up to £1,300. So it’s clear that these cosmetic items are more than what they seem. Of course, some skins are so rare that they’re actually worth much more than the top listed on Valve’s own platform-so players have set up 3rd party websites for higher value skin trading and sales. Valve have been alerted to these websites and promised to take further action; of which is yet to be seen.

These websites have no involvement with game publishers themselves, rather owned by individuals looking to create an organised gambling system. Sites like csgoroll are designed and look just like any online roulette, with the exception of the currency used to gamble is traded by giving the site these digital items you get from games, and that the site isn’t officially registered or regulated.

Players will substitute what is usually used as chips in official gambling establishments for these “skins”, which are usually either traded for on-site currency or the items are used themselves (such as being thrown into a pot) with the chance for the winner to take all. 

But with such a controversial unregulated industry, why would millions of gamers take part knowing the legality of the situation in some circumstances? Just like real gambling, it does come with it’s own cons and pros. John, a 19 year old gaming hobbyist, has been picking up controllers and keyboards all his life, but he didn’t really expect to be involved in gaming-related gambling. “When using gambling sites based around these games, it was so simple.”

John told me that he tried a small amount of gambling in the past, but the appeal and ease of access is part of what drew him into gambling on these sites using the digital items he had obtained in-game. “I didn’t have lights flashing at me or music playing like you do in a casino-I put items in, click a button and I have a 50/50 chance of scoring big.” Another factor as to why he gained interest in this gaming gambling scene was through some promotions popular YouTuber videos that have been made of them playing on some of these sites.

A look into the items John owns, combined these items are worth £600.

Recently, John obtained an item that was worth £80, from a lootbox he opened from just £1.80. He thinks this is where most of the appeal comes from, and on 3rd party websites, you can win even more with a buy-in as little as 20p on some sites. “Some [websites] also give you free money or credits as a trial, to get you started and draw you in” John told me. This tactic is used as a way to promote these gambling websites as well as entice others with a small taster test for free.

John’s involvement with this kind of digital gambling also shows the flip side of the coin, as there is no regulation for this kind of business these sites can make their own rules, such as the promise of chance to obtain an item of much higher value with a lower buy in as apposed to these lootboxes that are created by official game publishers, this method is usually more attractive.

The low buy in nature of these sites, however has some people, including John, say how the opportunity to win items of high worth can be beneficial to their life situation, compared to a casino. “I thought that I could earn a bit more Money, as I needed it at the time and it kinda pushed me a bit more.” John explained to me.

Despite many of the reasons gamers are gambling these digital items for, the lootbox controversy started hitting mainstream media last year and many legal firms now investigate into the online gaming gambling market and have uncovered many shady businesses, including fraud and scams, within these websites.  

The Gambling Commission, a regulatory body for commercial gambling in the UK, released an annual report in December 2017 investigating the connections of young people and gambling. This was a new addition to the annual reports, as it now factored in the use of digital items being used to place bets and gamble with online. Sarah Harrison, chief executive of the Gambling Commission told the BBC in an article relating to young people and “skin betting” that “Because of these unlicensed skin betting sites, the safeguards that exist are not being applied.”

Unregulated sites pose very serious issues, such as the ability for the owner of the site to rig most bets in their favour, and there’s no safety practices involved. Yet, gambling through these gaming sites is vastly popular despite the sketchiness of the operations. “Some gamblers of money and lottery are spending hundreds or thousands just to lose; they turn to lootboxes and skins betting because it’s not as serious or it’s seen as low stakes” Grant concerned over the thought process behind these site’s popularity.

Skin betting sites that wager digital items in games is a completely new form of gambling and as such, is still being investigated by regulatory bodies despite being unnoticed for a long time. Until an official resolution is resolved, gamers like John will continue to spin away in this morally and legal grey area.








Aspiring journalist and critic. eSports and gaming hobbyist. Avid moaner.