This is a vile, disgusting, and blatant middle finger to lawmakers and gamers alike. If you don’t want to read what I have to say, at least you’ll know the core of how I feel about this.
On July 23rd, 2019, Rockstar Games, the critically acclaimed studio behind recent mega hits such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and the topically appropriate Grand Theft Auto V, released a new update for the latter. The Diamond Casino & Resort is an in-game casino that players can play various games of chance in, earning currency to be used toward new cars, furniture, and more. By and large this is standard fare for the GTA world. In any other GTA game (except maybe IV), this would be just fine. However, things become muddy when you consider the involvement of real world money.
While you can certainly earn the money needed for the casino, and other activities, in game, you also have the option of outright paying real money for fake money. This is an unfortunate, and sadly common, reality of modern AAA gaming. There are many giants of microtransactions (or recurrent player spending to use Take-Two’s terminology) out there, but GTA V is definitely a giant among them. Hard figures are not available, but many publications and analysts have estimated that the game has made hundreds of millions of dollars in tiny-buys alone.
So why talk about it now? What about the casino makes this worth bringing up for the hundredth time? Well, that in-game money, that can be purchased with real world money, can be literally gambled away. Unsurprisingly, in a casino, you can spend money in hopes of winning more money. Most notably, players are targeting the unique rewards that the casino offers, that can only be purchased with chips won at the casino. Unlike in a real world casino, that restricts access to anyone under the age of 18-21 (depending on the state), a player of any age can enter the GTA V casino and gamble away their actual money. Of course, GTA V has an age rating of M, restricting purchase to those 17 years and older. However, it’s naive to think only 17+ aged gamers are playing GTA V.
Therefore, GTA V has now made it possible for children to gamble. Setting aside the “think of the children” argument, gamers with actual gambling addictions just got a new online outlet. Forms of “gambling” in games have existed before, such as (arguably) loot boxes. However, there is an extra layer of scum on this story when the gambling is done in an actual online casino. This is the kind of content update that benefits the players a small, fleeting amount. However, it benefits Rockstar Games and Take-Two a tremendous amount. All through exploiting the vices of their player base.
One day prior to this update, less than 24 hours, the Gambling Commission of the UK declared that FIFA packs and loot boxes are not gambling. I’m not suggesting Rockstar Games waited until this declaration before releasing literal gambling into their game. However, it is poetic, isn’t it? This update is so blatant that over 50 countries have banned the ability for players to gamble in this game’s casino.
The presence of loot boxes has been a grim shadow for some time now, starting out in mobile as a necessity to survive. Once console and PC publishers saw the money on the table, they wanted in. More recently, as loot boxes have become more predatory, people have been asking for legislation and control over them. The basic argument is that loot boxes are a form of gambling.
EA has come under the most heat surrounding this debate, with titles like FIFA and Star Wars Battlefront 2. A representative even went so far as to say they don’t like the term “loot boxes.” Instead, she clarified, they call them “surprise mechanics.” This is such laughable bullshit it spawned memes. Changing the terminology is a common and slimy practice used to distance something from a negative image. If you want another example, earlier in the article I mentioned that Take-Two doesn’t use the term “microtransactions;” presumably because the word carries negative connotations. Instead, they prefer “recurrent consumer spending.” Honestly, that new terminology is more descriptive of the reality, and a lot grimmer.
This problem has existed in the physical world too. Go into any department store’s toy aisle and many items are “boxes” that contain a randomly chosen toy. Many even have your odds of getting that toy. Some have argued that this is a form of gambling. EA even pointed at them as an unregulated product that gets away with the same thing they’re doing. A “they’re doing it too!” argument to deflect attention. However, the same argument that recently saved loot boxes from being declared gambling is the same used for these toys: the items you get have no monetary value differences between them.
For clarification on this, look at Magic the Gathering, specifically the physical version. The main method of gaining cards in this game is to open booster packs. Though the distribution of rarity is the same for each pack (X commons, Y uncommons, Z rares), the specific cards are different. Every card has the same manufacturing cost, and theoretically same monetary value. It takes no more effort to print a common than a rare, basically. Of course, all cards are not created equal, and different cards are valued more highly than others. So then, doesn’t this mean that opening a booster pack is gambling money away in hopes of getting cards that are worth more than the cost of the pack? Yes.
So how does Wizards of the Coast get away from gambling legislation? By pretending this secondary market doesn’t exist. As far as I can find, they have never officially acknowledged this secondary market. Because if they did, they’d have to admit that consumers are valuing their products differently. They’re basically playing dumb.
In truth, Rockstar and Take-Two will likely get away with this unless something changes. Loot boxes and microtransactions have survived this long because players have become accustomed. The latest generation of gamers have grown up in a world where loot boxes and microtransactions are just the way of things. They can’t remember a time when they weren’t around. Moreover, GTA V is a powerhouse. While some players may stop playing in protest, there’s no way it would make a dent in the profit margins. They analyze the risk vs. reward and act accordingly. They know, through watching our behaviors, that this won’t hurt their bottom line. Despite the vile nature of this, people will shrug and move on. They simply don’t want to A) not play their favorite game, and B) risk losing out on playing a sequel to that game.
However, I implore everyone, if this is something that disgusts you like it does me, you need to do something. These practices only continue because we allow them to. Make your voice heard, make a call to action. Above all else, though, vote with your wallet. In truth, these big publishers and developers likely don’t give two rotten shits what you think. If the money in is greater than the money out, they’re happy. So make sure they aren’t getting any money in.
Loot boxes and microtransactions got to where they are because of us. “Well it’s only vanity items,” we said. Those items used to be just included with the game. Fun unlockables for playing or finding secrets. But suddenly it was okay to monetize them. Then there are microtransactions. Publishers fed us all kinds of bullshit about how they’d make the game better. How they’re needed to fund future content. Bullshit. No one asked you to make games that cost $200,000,000. Publishers told us better graphics made for better games, and to get those graphics they needed more money. Look at all the indie games that were made with a nickel and are no less beloved than many AAA games. This is greed, pure and simple.
They think you’re idiots. Idiots with loose wallets. Prove them wrong. Don’t give them a single red cent. The ominous cloud of “recurrent consumer spending” and “surprise mechanics” is just one of several trends threatening to ruin this beloved past time. However, this cloud especially can be easily defeated: if you just decide not to reward them for their greed.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the feelings of KeenGamer.