Look, those government-led committees on gaming are embarrassing reflections of modern society, whatever side of the debate you are on. But while defending themselves in a loot box enquiry an EA spokesperson has really out-done themselves, with a super hot take on loot boxes. Apparently they are "quite ethical", a fun surprise that players absolutely enjoy. Loot boxes were also referred to as Kinder Eggs, which... you know what? I actually agree with you on that front, EA. It's a perfect analogy.
For those of you unaware — as it's not available in all territories — Kinder Surprise (known colloquially as Kinder Egg) is a chocolate treat aimed at kids, about the size and shape of a chicken egg. It has an extremely thin layer of milk chocolate and an extremely thin layer of milk-flavoured solid cream — it's slightly more appetising than it sounds. In the central hollow space children will find a delightful toy. The surprise? You don't know which one you're going to get! Sound familiar?
Here's all the ways that loot boxes are exactly like Kinder Eggs.
They are cheap, effective ways to part parents from their moneyAs anyone who has eaten a Kinder Egg will let you know, the actual chocolate content of the egg is roughly the weight of a whisper, or your own shadow. Despite this, kids (especially in the United Kingdom in the eighties and nineties) absolutely loved them and demanded them from frazzled parents on any trip to the corner shop. The clever trick was in the presentation. The eggs look fascinating and the dual layer chocolate was a bit of a novelty in those days — we're talking 10-15 years before Cadbury started stuffing every known flavour and cookie brand into their chocolates. More importantly, there was a toy inside — and you had no idea what it could possibly be. There was always the possibility that it was something really cool, like in the little paper pamphlet that you took out of the last egg — a monster truck, a little helicopter, whatever — but it might also be a super cheap unidentifiable hunk of plastic that was too insubstantial to even be used as a paperweight. But the possibility was what was being sold — at a significant premium compared to other bars, despite having much less chocolate in it. It was the definition of selling the sizzle rather than the sausage. You can see how EA would latch on to this pretty callous marketing strategy, because...
There's always a better prize in another one, and your friends probably have it
The key thing with a Kinder Egg, and with a Happy Meal, and with a loot box, is the promise — the damn near certainty — that a friend or someone in your vicinity got a better deal. To a child's brain — heck, even to a lot of adult brains — the possibility that those friends have probably only acquired the better prize because they bought about a thousand Eggs or Boxes doesn't quite sooth the terrible wound, or the feeling that you are falling behind. This is the key reason why loot boxes are in many ways worse than gambling — in gambling you are normally only fighting your own self-worth, but with any socially shared aesthetic or useful item, you are fighting the crushing weight of direct peer envy, maybe even bullying — and that is so much more insidious. It's also, unfortunately, a great marketing tactic. The easiest way to deal with the feeling that people have better stuff than you? Buy more stuff until you have better stuff than their stuff. It's a never-ending cycle of despair, and it can be found conveniently at your local candy counter or in your favourite online shooter.
But why is it a never-ending cycle? Well...
There's an infinite amount of cheap crap you can put in one
The fantastic thing about Kinder Eggs and loot boxes is that the only limit to the insubstantial crap you can put in one is your own imagination. If anything, loot boxes have the edge here — they don't even have to churn out another wobbly plastic mess because the content is digital. In either case, the cross-promotional possibilities are endless. Kinder might strike a deal with the Secret Life of Pets II; Fortnite might strike a deal with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Alright, that's technically a micro-transaction, but I think the point still stands). Even if you manage to get the best prize of the current set, guess what? Those candy and video game making devils have a brand new set out next week, so your current set is already basically out of date. Again, loot boxes have an advantage over the humble Egg here; instead of looking out-of-date in front of your mate at school who is addicted to Kinder products, you can look out of date in front of millions of Twitch viewers. The cycle can basically continue forever, because let's face it: most things in a loot box — or a Kinder Egg — amount to little more than a paint job of an existing asset, at best. It's printing money.
Countries want to ban them, because they're dangerous and misleadingHere's where EA have really shot themselves in the foot; if loot boxes are basically Kinder Eggs, then they should be banned in one of EA's largest markets.
If you haven't heard of or tried a Kinder Surprise, chances are you live in the grand old United States of America, where they are currently banned. Sure, it's not because they are insidiously addictive while being functionally worthless — rather, it's because the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act effectively bans the sale of candy which contains a non-edible toy or trinket. Kinder Surprise toys are often comprised of multiple parts, which shouldn't be sold to pre-schoolers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission determined that Kinder was a chocolate product — ostensibly available to pre-schoolers — and therefore the embedded toys were in violation of small parts regulation. Basically, Kinder Surprise is a choking hazard. Chile has banned it for similar reasons.
Loot boxes are only a choking hazard when a parent opens up their credit card bill, and that's hard to pin on EA directly. Nevertheless, throwing down the Kinder Egg gauntlet was probably unwise — perhaps US lawmakers will start looking for similar loopholes in which to entrap the loot box in its traditional form. Now that the GDC have named "gaming disorder" as a legitimate behavioural illness to be treated — in the same category as gambling disorder, no less — the opportunities for legal action have been significantly increased.
Mind you, there's always loopholes within loopholes. Americans can currently get a Kinder Joy instead, where the toy is not encased in the chocolate — but you still don't know what you're going to get before you open it.
They're both harsh lessons in the value of moneyI have to credit the humble Kinder Egg for teaching me just how important money is and just how ruthlessly most companies will try to trick or bully me out of it with a basic but effective armoury of psychological warfare. When I started getting my own pocket money instead of just screaming at my mum to give me a Kinder Egg — because I had been so well behaved, up until the screaming — I quickly saw the grave truth of the villainous confection. This single misty breath of chocolate was costing me literally all of my pocket money every week. The toy inside was not worth a shiny pound Sterling; it was worth nothing. It was garbage, only to be replaced by different coloured garbage a week later. Worse, I had chosen to pay for this garbage when my room was already full of actual toys. This realization aged me by about 20 years overnight. Now I am a cynical and mistrustful miser, inspecting every social interaction in my life for signs of a pocket money leech. I have few friends, but I have my integrity.
As with Kinder Eggs, so with loot boxes. At least in the end our children will learn that everyone is trying to con them out of their money, or bully them into keeping up with their peers. Once they make this realisation — hopefully before the crippling life-long debt — they will be reborn as responsible, money-conscious folks who understand that every penny is a precious lifeline to financial stability.
Let's not be too shocked if EA use that last paragraph in their next hearing.
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