Recently, the video game industry has gotten itself into quite a quagmire regarding the implementation of loot boxes in video games. For those that don’t know, loot boxes are items in video games that, when opened, will give you a random item from a larger pool of items. Most loot box systems will have certain items in the pool be rarer than others, and will also allow the player to obtain duplicates of the items in that pool, i.e. items are not taken out of the pool once a player obtains them. Most importantly, most games that implement loot boxes use them as a form of monetization: players can typically obtain loot boxes through gameplay without spending money at a very slow rate, but they have the option of spending real money to buy additional loot boxes for more chances to get the item they want.
The loot box system has come under scrutiny recently due to Electronic Arts’s Star Wars: Battlefront II. While most games that had used loot boxes, such as Overwatch, made sure the items that the boxes contained were purely cosmetic with no impact on the gameplay, Battlefront II’s loot boxes provided items that conferred in-game benefits of various sorts. In a game designed to be a competitive shooter where players can meet other players online and try to beat each other, this unfortunately leads to a “pay-to-win” situation where someone who has spent more money on loot boxes has a much better chance at winning, thus encouraging the losers to spend money on loot boxes to try to catch up. Add on the randomization factor that means one cannot guarantee they get the item they want in a single purchase and may end up buying several loot boxes in order to get their desired items, and all of this attached to a major name like Star Wars, and higher-ups started paying attention. Belgium requested an investigation by European officials to determine if loot boxes were actually a form of gambling, and Hawaii state representative Chris Lee has been particularly vocal about the potential dangers of loot box system and has asked for games with them to be regulated similar to gambling regulations.
“This is interesting and all, but what does this have to do with the anime, manga, and Japanese video games that this site focuses on,” you might ask. The answer is, the loot box mechanic has been taken from the “gacha” mechanic used by many Japanese mobile games. Gachas are basically the same as loot boxes; the only difference is that, while loot boxes are usually earned or bought directly, gachas instead require a certain amount of a special type of currency that can either be earned in-game at a moderate rate, or can be bought with real money, to “pull” for their rewards. While many games with loot boxes are standard “AAA” games that already cost $60 just to play them, with the loot boxes as a form of additional monetization, the vast majority of mobile gacha games are free to start, with gachas as their primary form of monetization. Rarer rewards from gachas do tend to give gameplay advantages, which can give such games a “pay-to-win” setup as well, though most such games limit the extent of player-vs.-player content to allow for the game to still be enjoyable for non- or low-paying players. Instead, gacha rewards are usually geared towards making single-player content easier, and spending money is seen more as a way of speeding up your progress in the game.
However, the true lucrativeness of the mobile gacha game lies in something that is more cosmetic than gameplay-oriented: waifus (and husbandos).
The rewards the player gets from these gachas are oftentimes characters, drawn to be appealing to players. Many games feature cute girls, others feature handsome guys, and some provide both with maybe a side of cute/cool critters to boot. A number of these games tie into popular franchises, such as Fire Emblem Heroes, Love Live! School Idol Festival, and The iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls Starlight Stage, so established fans of those franchises going into these games oftentimes have a favorite character or two they want to collect; other games will oftentimes collaborate with a franchise (such as Puzzle & Dragons collaborating with Final Fantasy and Fullmetal Alchemist) for special, frequently limited-time gachas. The sheer desire and dedication a player has towards his “best girl” may drive him to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on gacha pulls trying to get that ultra-rare version of his girl.
Lately, mobile games with gacha mechanics, such as Fire Emblem Heroes, Fate/Grand Order, and Love Live! School Idol Festival, have English versions available on worldwide app stores, increasing their visibility in the Western otaku community. Because gacha systems are basically synonymous with loot boxes, the current legal investigations on loot boxes will also affect these mobile gacha games; in fact, Apple already changed its terms of service to require all games on its stores with such a mechanic to make the exact probabilities of obtaining any given gacha reward publicly viewable by players in-game. As these games become more popular within otaku communities, as someone who plays these games and has had many varied experiences with gachas, I think it would be a good time to talk about loot boxes and gachas: their similarities (and differences) with gambling, and the most important thing to have if you choose to play one of these games.
If you have time, I definitely recommend checking out these videos by The Game Theorists, which goes further into the psychological tricks game developers behind gachas and loot boxes use to get players to spend money on them. It’s an enlightening look, and the more you understand the psychological tricks at play, the less likely you will fall victim to them.
You Bet (For) Your Waifu
The major question surrounding loot boxes and gachas is whether or not they legislatively constitute a form of gambling. One key difference between loot boxes and gachas and actual gambling at casinos or racetracks is that you are not spending money for a chance to win more money back than you spent. Instead, you spend money to get something of indeterminate value, which has no monetary worth but may or may not personally be worth the money you spent on it. Indeed, when you open a loot box or make a gacha pull, you will get something, which is a key difference from casinos where you spend money and may get nothing. However, that “something” may be that ultra-rare waifu you were hoping for, some other random super-rare girl that you would be happy to get, or the 346th dupe of that common girl everyone has. Moreover, even if you personally got that ultra-rare waifu and are over the moon, someone else who makes a pull and gets the exact same girl might be sorely disappointed, either because he already has her or he just doesn’t care that much for her. All this means that any given purchase of a loot box or a gacha pull may be a “gain” or a “loss” to you.
Whether or not loot boxes and gachas should be considered gambling legally is not a question I can answer, but as a gacha game player, I can definitely say that they are close enough to gambling psychologically that they should be approached with a similar attitude and the same amount of care.
At this point, I will confess that I have spent money on gacha games, and quite a lot of it. I cannot say for sure how much but I know that by this point, it’s at least a couple thousand US dollars over the past three years. This is definitely not something I am proud of, and lately I have definitely reconsidered my spending habits with regards to these games, reducing my expenditures overall. At the same time, I will say that, if the game is one I genuinely enjoy, such as The iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls: Starlight Stage (the game I’ve spent the most money on), I will be very glad to spend money on the game to support it and the franchise behind it. While it might not fully justify the large amounts of money I have spent on it, I do feel there is worth behind financially supporting those who make the things I love, and if that gets me a super-super-rare of my best girl, then all the better.
Among the communities of gacha mobile game communities we refer to big spenders like myself “whales”–a bit of slang we borrowed from casinos where the term is used to refer to high rollers. While I am far from the biggest of whales out there, who spend tens of thousands on a game, I would still consider myself part of that category of big spenders.
In my case I can consider myself fortunate enough to have a decently-paying job and enough self-control to avoid spending more than I can afford to. Others are not so lucky, and gacha expenditures for them can quickly turn into a financial nightmare. This Reddit post provides a real-life example of just how much of a problem overspending on gachas can be. With the heavy randomization factor, the pull of your “best girl” or the desire to keep up with friends and competitors can make one person spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars in order to get one particular character. Even without going that far down the rabbit hole, the impulse to do “one more pull” can easily take out another hundred bucks or so out of your bank account, only for the results to be nothing but dupes and disappointment.
As such, I find myself trying to move away from whaling habits, setting limits and requirements for what I’d be willing to spend money on, and reducing my expenditures on games overall. Perhaps most important to me, though, is what I will talk about in this next section…
Content With Your Loot Box Contents
“So, recovering whale,” you ask me, “I want to play one of these gacha/loot box games, and maybe even spend a little to try to get best girl/guy, but I don’t want to get sucked into emptying my bank account… what should I do?” The answer, as it turns out, is something Christianity has been promoting for ages: developing a sense of contentment.
If there’s one thing I can be grateful to mobile gacha games for, it’s making me realize what it really means to be content. The Bible talks often of being content with what we have and not having a love of money (Hebrews 13:5, 1 Timothy 6, among other places), which in general applies to all sorts of worldly things we might desire but do not need. After all, I have a God who loves me and sent His son to die for my sins, so I may one day enjoy eternal life with Him in a restored Earth; do I really need that limited SSR Miria or Chie right now? Asking myself questions like this not only helps me avoid the temptations of gachas, but it also reminds me just how much God has done for me.
On that note, just like how one might set aside a certain amount of money they are willing to lose before going to a casino, setting limits on how much you spend on a game (i.e. $X a month) will help you keep gacha/loot box purchases in check. How much that limit is will vary from person to person depending on their budget and how much they want to support the game they are spending on, among other factors; some might even have to try to only make do with whatever lootboxes or gacha currency they can earn in-game for free. Whatever you decide your limit is, though, you must stick to it, and this is where a spirit of contentment is critical. Once you have hit that limit, you must be content with what you earned. If you got some character other than the one you want, try using her and learning more about her to gain a better appreciation for her. Even if you get nothing but useless dupes, be thankful for those endorphin rushes you got from opening the boxes and move on.
No matter what, remember that gacha/loot box results, even good ones, can never give you true happiness in and of themselves. Amidst the consumer backlash against Star Wars: Battlefront II‘s loot boxes (specifically the absurd amount of time it would take to get popular heroes like Darth Vader without spending money), a community representative from publisher Electronic Arts made a comment on Reddit about how their intent was “to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes”. This comment would quickly become the single most downvoted comment in Reddit’s history. One does not gain any sense of pride or accomplishment from throwing money at a game until it gives them what they want (or by grinding mindlessly for days for it). And, of course, even if you do gain some happiness from pulling that ultra-rare best girl, it is happiness in the most fleeting of forms. She won’t accompany you to your next life, and even within this life, once the game in question ends service (because most of these games aren’t even a decade old, and expecting such games to last more than even twenty years is very generous), she will be gone for good.
On the other hand, God’s love is everlasting. He will be there for you through every gacha pull, good or bad, and will still be there when the game ends service. Best of all, under His love, you can even enjoy those gacha pulls knowing they are within the context of something far greater. You can celebrate the good pulls, and find contentment in bad pulls. You can thank God for directing the creation of a game you enjoy playing, whether or not you spend money to support its creators.
The Future of Loot Boxes
As officials debate over what regulations games with loot boxes and gachas might need, we gamers need to be aware of the impact of these mechanics. Even if you yourself will never play one of these games, more and more people you know will, and you may find yourself dealing with someone who has spent a bit too much on a game. Not only that, but it is because of the community outcry over Battlefront II‘s particularly exploitative loot boxes that legislators and video game companies are taking a closer look at loot box and gacha systems. Our voice can make a difference here, and we may need to use that voice to keep the potential exploitation of these systems in check.
What is your opinion of loot box and gacha systems in video games? How much money spent on a video game do you think is too much?