The games industry is facing a crisis when it comes to loot boxes. Not like back in 2017 when angry consumers descended on Star Wars Battlefront II with pitchforks, but an existential threat from lawmakers around the world.
Combined with questions around gaming disorder, there are genuine ethical concerns to address, which makes 2K Games' latest trailer for NBA 2K20 all the more troubling. Demonstrating new features in the revised MyTeam mode, 2K has made gambling the central conceit, and really wants to stress quite how much fun it is.
The latest trailer for 2K Games' annual basketball title puts randomised loot front and centre, seemingly abandoning all pretence that loot boxes aren't demonstrably similar to gambling. The trailer looks like it belongs to a gambling website, not a video game, and it's a staggeringly oblivious way to sell your game in the current climate of scrutiny and threats of legislation.
Now included in the NBA 2K20 slate of features are slot machines, pachinko machines, and a knock-off Wheel of Fortune. From its lurid colour palette and suite of log-in bonuses, to the free currency and chances to win rare cards, MyTeam has been effectively transformed into an online casino.
This is where spokespeople from the ESA or 2K Games might offer a defence, but neither have responded to my requests to comment so far. But, this isn't my first "loot boxes are basically gambling" rodeo, so I'll do my best to present a justification of these systems before pulling it apart with my teeth.
Is NBA 2K20 MyTeam gambling? Well, that depends on who you ask, but the legal consensus from international regulators says no. As it stands, it doesn't matter how aesthetically or functionally similar they are to gambling, as long as you can't cash out, it doesn't count.
Belgium is the notable exception here, where the local gambling authority ruled that being unable to cash out winnings for real-world money was not a prerequisite of gambling. However, earlier this year, 2K Games halted the sale of virtual currency in NBA 2K19 for Belgian players effectively making it compliant to their nation's law.
"While we disagree with this position, we are working to comply with the [Belgian Gaming Commission's] current interpretation of these laws," 2K said at the time, before encouraging players to contact local government representatives and help fight the publisher's corner.
"The trailer looks like it belongs to a gambling website, not a video game, and it's a staggeringly oblivious way to sell your game in the current climate"
Almost every gambling regulator which has investigated loot boxes has raised valid concerns about how closely the mechanic replicates gambling, not just in function, but in aesthetics. The bright colours, the sense of suspense, and those glittery animations which reveal either jubilation or disappointment -- these are all components which gambling regulators have pointed to and said: "This is a concern." But regulators don't have power to change a nation's laws, only interpret and enforce them. So their concerns, while valid, are little more than whispers in a storm.
So technically, no, NBA 2K20 MyTeam is not gambling. It's just a fun little mini game with variable ratio reinforcement schedules, sensory feedback, entrapment systems designed to encourage further spending, and a ready, constant availability. So, even though it looks like gambling, and has all the psychological signifiers of gambling, it's not. Cool, right?
Last year I wrote that the industry was at war with itself over a technicality -- one that it uses to justify its behaviour. The industry approach to loot boxes was irresponsible back then, but now with more critical eyes cast our way than ever before, it's wilfully shortsighted.
Legislators are watching the games industry. They are picking it apart, looking for ways it could be harmful, and they smell blood in the water. In the UK, an inquiry into immersive and addictive technologies which has been underway for several months, has repeatedly embarrassed industry representatives trying to justify their ethically questionable monetisation strategies.
At this point, it feels like 2K and Rockstar (following its perfectly-timed casino update to GTA V) are careening towards the cliff edge, blindly ignoring all the warning signs, almost as if to say: "You think those other publishers are problematic? Just wait until you see this." And all we can do is watch as they pop a wheelie and plummet into the void.
"Gambling isn't so heavily regulated because the Fun Police don't want you getting too excited before bedtime -- it's because gambling can and does ruin lives"
The games industry spent the best part of 40 years convincing the world that it has cultural value, and isn't a danger to children. The debate around violence and video games has broadly been put to bed -- despite the best efforts of a few people to use them as a smokescreen -- and the medium has found mainstream acceptance. Video games aren't just for "weird nerds" anymore, they're for everyone, and are even considered art now, just like those big old paintings. What a time to be alive!
But it's all about the bottom line, right? And even when that line is higher than it's ever been, companies like Activision Blizzard won't blink at the prospect of firing 800 people. So of course a game publisher will use all the tools at its disposal to satisfy the thirst of its shareholders.
Until very recently, that's the way it has always been. Ethics will always play second-fiddle to profits. However, earlier this month one of America's largest business groups dropped the "shareholder first" ethos that's so intrinsic to capitalism.
As reported by the Financial Times, The Business Roundtable -- which generates $7 trillion revenue annually and has nearly 200 members, including the like of JPMorgan, Amazon, and General Motors -- added customers, workers, suppliers, and communities to its list of key stakeholders.
Essentially, this reflects a growing demand from consumers for ethical business practices. People are beginning to reject unchecked capitalism, acknowledging the harm that solely profit-driven motives can inflict, and demanding better standards.
If NBA 2K20 MyTeam looks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it's gambling. There isn't even anything necessarily wrong with such brazen similarities to gambling, unless of course it's rated E for Everyone, and uses the same tricks and lures as the gambling industry -- like bonus currency or free goes on whatever colourful machine is pumping out character cards.
Gambling isn't so heavily regulated because the Fun Police don't want you getting too excited before bedtime -- it's because gambling can and does ruin lives. It's not just people losing their home to an ill-advised game of craps at a dodgy Vegas casino either. It's the sinister escalation, from an innocent flutter courtesy of your friendly online gambling website, to an all-consuming compulsion.
Lots of people can and do gamble responsibly, but there are plenty who don't. Every person out there is susceptible to manipulation in small ways; we all have a vice, and the underlying psychological flaws that leave us vulnerable can easily open the door to more than just junk food or cigarettes. We crave the good stuff, whatever that might be, and it takes tremendous force of will to not engage with something that is being so actively pushed in your direction.