How video games snuck a roulette table into our homes

The gaming industry is currently basking in its glory as one of the most effective attention drivers of any media type in existence. When initial stay-at-home orders were mandated across the US, we saw people paying 3x for consoles on Ebay due to a lack of supply. A lot of these buyers were not actually long-time gamers but people who had not played video games in years. Now many in this growing audience have started moving over to the part-time, and even hardcode, gamer category. Eight months after both the original COVID and gaming surges, we are facing another round of lockdowns with fresh XBOX and PlayStation consoles hitting shelves.

While the great XBOX vs. PS debate roars on, a new capability has allowed fans to put their money where their mouths are. Cross play is now available on multiple popular games like Fortnite, Call of Duty, and Apex Legends, allowing for Xbox, PlayStation, and even PC players to play against one another.

This cross-platform capability has helped to fill a connection void we’ve all been desperately missing over the past year. We have known that gaming is a terrific way to stay connected with friends but now it is truly taking the place of the physical connections we were once so fond of. A lot of the best conversations are not generated from pre-planned chats, they happen over a game of basketball or building a ramp to jump your bikes from (yes these are pointed examples from my childhood). This holds true for any age range, having an activity to gather around helps drive connection and substance in conversation.

While there has been so much to love about what gaming has done for consumers over this past year, it is important to point out one of the underlying dark sides.

The initial response to being able to connect with all your friends and family across different consoles through a free-to-play game seems like it is too good to be true, and to be fair, for some people it really is. For these games to be free to download, developers need to find other ways to make money in lieu of charging $60 for the game itself. Enter Microtransactions, they have been around for a long time and yet still prove to be incredibly successful (remember when Clash of Clans pulled in close to $2B back in 2015?).

These are the transactions that allow players to “add an extra life” or “steal a token chest” for as low as a couple of cents, and up to hundreds of dollars. As players get increasingly invested in a game, the prospect of paying a few dollars starts to feel less crazy and from there it is a slippery slope. The transaction between the gamer spending actual currency and the game design displaying gold coins or metals starts to break away from the reality of a gamer paying actual money. This, however, is not the major gripe of in-game transactions.

Microtransactions have moved from just paying for extra lives on a mobile game like Candy Crush to becoming a staple in some of the biggest console games in the world.

Loot boxes have added an entirely new element to in-game purchases within the gaming community, and let us not forget this is a community that is dominated by young adults and children. A loot box is a function of a game in which players can open randomized prizes, ranging from new outfits and weapons to music. A lot of times these loot boxes start off as complementary for the gamer. The trouble starts when a gamer has been playing a certain game for an extended period, and they come across the free loot-boxes far less frequently. Now the game is starting to promote loot-boxes, associated with a cost to open, with promises of holding coveted items. As gamers continue to play, they become more aware of what their peers have and what they do not. So, these loot boxes become more appealing and the gamer starts to spend money in hopes of getting something on trend in their digital universe.

What makes this dangerous is that there has been little to no oversight in how these “randomized” loot boxes operate from the game developer side. There has been an explicit concern of game developers using gamers' transaction behavior against them, squeezing in the optimal amount someone will pay for an item throughout one gaming experience.

Everything I described to you sounds like it should be taking place on the floor of a casino with oversight of the gaming commission, not unsupervised in our living room or basement.

Thankfully there has been a push by the heavyweights of the industry like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, who are now mandating the games made for their systems to provide data proving their loot box odds. This is an exemplary case of brands defending their consumers and aiming to cease unethical practices that have plagued the gaming industry.

Further opportunity for advertisers: think about how your brand might show up, step in, and help provide value to both gamers and developers alike. We know that gamers love loot boxes, and we know that developers rely on them to supplement the cost for the game itself. As creatives and media professionals, we need to challenge ourselves to find ways to take on those costs for gamers – brand sponsored loot boxes are a territory that can appease both sides and give gamers a reason to be even more thankful for your brand.

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