Casino Tricks Used to Manipulate Players
While researching for this episode, I stumbled across a fascinating video by Jim Sterling who did an incredible exposé on the company, so if you want to learn more I’ve linked to it in the [ i ] cards at the top. Check it out. Jim is *excellent* at doing these sorts of things, so I highly recommend watching that.
And Scientific Revenue is far from the only one in this business. Kotaku discovered a patent, owned by Activision, that uses player info to push gamers into buying microtransactions and loot boxes. Basically what this tool is able to do is identify items that might interest you as a player, and then match you against other entropay casinos ca players with more skill who own and use that item. That way, you’re in a match, you see the item, you see how good the other players are with it, And you want to get it for yourself so you too can be as good as those other guys. In short, as games track more and more of your data, and as technology continues to understand gamer behavior better, games are being tuned more and more precisely to get you to spend money.
And with a combination of player metrics and psychological sciences working against you, it’s a lot to resist. Even if you’re not typically someone who spends money on games. So, all things told across these two episodes, this is a partial list of everything that is stacked against you.
Skinner Box reward models, free trials that get you over your loss aversion and into a state of sunk costs, illusion of control, dynamic odds precisely tuned to *your* play habits, flexible pricing to hit you where you’re willing to pay, and even matchmaking services to get you excited about new items. Oh boy, that’s a lot. But, we have to go back to the underlying question here. Is it gambling? Is it dangerous? As much as it might seem that this is a clear-cut case of companies squeezing us for every last dollar by exploiting our desire to get a rare item out of a random box, there is another side to this story.
Like every issue, there’s a lot of nuance to this subject. But as I think we all know, in a world where your thoughts need to be condensed to 280 characters, nuance is a hard sell. It doesn’t get the retweets, but when you actually stop and look at loot crates, they’ve been around for over a hundred years.
[old movie audio] That’s right, meet the original loot boxes: Baseball cards. [normal] Before there were Hearthstone cards, or Magic cards, or practically even Hallmark cards, there were baseball cards. Just like the loot boxes of today, cards started coming in packs shortly after World War II, offering a selection of all your favorite b-ball characters to collect and trade, and it was all Yankee Doodle Dandy and apple pie. But card makers quickly realized that they could get kids — and their parents — to buy more packs of cards if they set up special rewards or incentives in the packs. One of the most famous examples was the Gold Rush of 1992.
The Gold *Foil* Rush of 1992. The way it worked was for the manufacturer, Topps, to insert special gold cards into select packs of baseball cards. They were exactly the same as regular cards, but the lettering was gold. Ho ho boy, calm down. It became such a massive craze that the company had to update their packaging to make it tamper resistant. *And* add features to cards to prevent counterfeiting.
Realizing what a big hit these rare premium cards were, Topps then came out with a *super* premium set and an *ultra* premium set to keep collectors collecting. Other competitor companies started creating similar gimmicks to get kids to buy more card packs and collect more and more cards with the same players over and over again. Same player, same player, same player– just a special font, a heavier card stock, a shiny gold label.
So even if you’ve never touched a video game, if you, or your parents, or your parents’ parents have ever opened a set of baseball cards, They’ve participated in the same psychological phenomena that I’ve been talking about this whole time. From the dopamine anticipation pathways, to the sporadic rewards, to the loss aversion principles. So if this practice has been going on in safe, kid-friendly hobbies for literally a century, can it actually be harmful? Well interestingly enough, shortly after the 1992 Gold Foil craze, the exact same discussions happening now around loot boxes, started happening around baseball cards. The Wall Street Journal came down hard on the principles of card collecting as gambling and lamented its “loss of innocence” back in 1996.
In 1999, The New York Times brought the same issue up again, but instead of baseball cards, it was Pokémon cards. claiming that the Pokémon card lottery system was a form of gambling for children. You know the phrase “those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it”? Well here we are. The argument is cyclical, with a ton of the major toy crazes from the past few decades being ultimately based on some kind of random prize system, or, to some people, gambling.
So, how did all these issues shake out in the past? Why is this still an issue nearly thirty years after the first gold foil baseballer hit store shelves? Well, one of the biggest arguments that have kept these issues from moving forward in the past is that there are some genuinely big differences between what we classify as gambling, and what happens with card packs and loot boxes. In a casino, you’re betting money that you’ll win. But if you don’t, you leave the casino with nothing. Your money literally disappears into the casino vault and you get nothing in exchange.
Systems like loot boxes though, or Magic cards, or Pokémon cards, or Baseball cards before them, or even those eBay mystery boxes that vloggers have been spending egregious amounts of money on lately — those don’t work like this. In the case of loot boxes, you’re always buying *something*. You never hand your money to Blizzard for a loot box and find that that loot box is empty. That would be what a casino is like: maybe you get something, maybe you don’t. But in this case, you *always* get something.
You just don’t know whether it’s the something that you wanted. And where *you* might not want the skins or sprays in the box, for someone else, it might be exactly what they were looking for. There’s no gaming company that’s actually participating in a system where you give something and get nothing. So here’s the deal.
Would you rather have loot boxes that give you nothing, and then have the government classify them as gambling and regulate them, Or would you rather just keep them the way they are — unregulated. That seems to be the option that we’re faced with here. *Or* if you do want to call loot boxes as they are today gambling, and then regulate them, where does it stop?
You’ll also need to regulate Magic cards, and baseball cards, and by logical extension, bags of Skittles. And if you think that sounds stupid, why? Consider this. I buy a bag of Skittles and expect a certain number of red and purple ones because they’re obviously the best flavors.
But instead I always end up with like 70% yellow and orange. I lost the gamble. My loot bag of Skittles gave me a bunch of crap flavors and I am outraged.
While that seems like an extreme example, it’s a slippery slope towards any product that involves a random chance. And the lines only get blurrier the further you go. So there you have it.
The scientific arguments against loot boxes, and the philosophical rationale for them. Like I said, it’s not an easy debate, but what’s most important is that we *as players* stay aware of the psychology that goes into every game that we download or pick up off the shelf. Let 2018 be the year where we get smarter as players, and educate other gamers on the tactics being used to separate us from our money Knowing and understanding the systems in place to take advantage of our basic psychology helps you to avoid them, and ensures that your in-game decisions are being made by *you*, not by a company manipulating you.
But hey, that’s just a theory, a GAME THEORY! Let 2019 begin.