Gaming, gambling and blind collection culture

Simon Blish

Video games have long included elements from traditional gaming within more complex and interactive contexts. For example, roleplaying games, while ostensibly focusing on a quest-like narrative that becomes a form of interactive storytelling, often includes multiple diversions cribbed directly from games of chance and skill: betting on card and dice games to accrue more resources in-game, solving a puzzle to open a door, besting antagonists at chess as a diversion from the hack ‘n’ slash.

These games-within-games were originally included to give a change of tone and pace, or to allow players to exercise different gameplay muscles (some players prefer combat, others prefer games of logic, so including a variety of gameplay styles gives everyone something to enjoy). But it can also be argued that their very intent was to normalise and popularise game culture – including, perhaps, the consumerist-friendly concepts of gambling and risk-taking. Even Pokémon, despite its child-friendly image, featured slot machines in its early days, in which the player could use in-game currency to purchase tokens and bet to win prizes and Pokémon.

Technology is changing the marketplace. Publishers of music, film and books are scrabbling to preserve their income at a time when audiences consume creative works in new and different ways. Likewise, there’s a larger number of games being produced every year across a wider range of platforms. Gone are the days when everyone played Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda on Sega or Nintendo devices. Games publishers have thus ‘diversified’ their income streams by taking this tradition of games-within-games, and the trend towards gambling and risk-taking, and monetising it.

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Real-life gambling is now possible, and often encouraged, through games. More indirectly, players are invited to unlock paid-for add-ons, or to invest in in-game currency that enhances their experience – while giving games publishers the chance to continue to make money even after a person has made their initial purchase. There’s no need to sell a game millions of times, if it can be sold thousands of times, but open up the possibility of further in-game purchases down the line.

There has always been one particular kind of game targeted at children that has always been a kind of gamble: collectible card games. Similar collectible fads included Pogs and Tazos. These games primarily revolved around purchasing random packs (or crisps and cereals for Tazos) in which you hope to get what you need and will trade away any spares. This is taken to more of an extreme with trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh! as you will want powerful cards that you can use in your deck or trade away for a higher value, while disregarding any underpowered cards, maybe trashing them completely.

Blind bags and boxes are everywhere these days and work similar to collectible cards, as you will get a random figurine, key rings, etc, and hope you get the one you want. If you have a spare you could trade or sell it. Services such as Lootcrate take this a step further giving you various random items each month. Many game the system – selling rare and sought-after cards and toys for an increased price online.

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It seems the new levels of gambling and risk-taking owe a lot to these collectible games of old. Dozens of games in recent memory have allowed players to purchase packs and boxes in order to unlock new items. Overwatch, for example, allows players to unlock loot boxes by playing the game, which will contain random items, costumes and the like for their characters. There’s no guarantee of getting something you want and getting a duplicate is likely (though these will be converted into a small amount of in-game currency). There are items that are rarer than others and they may only be available for brief periods, so you need more boxes and you can buy them with real money.

You can purchase bundles of loot boxes for certain amounts and hope you get something you want, meaning you could easily spend hundreds of pounds and still not get anything you want. You can purchase specific unlockables with in-game currency, but it can take a while to amass enough to buy a single item, let alone multiple. This is even more problematic in things such as FIFA, as the players you unlock for FIFA 17 Ultimate Team are better than others and you need a strong squad to compete, so you have to spend more to get what you need and pay to win.

The sly push for gambling in games has surprisingly been very popular – perhaps even addictive. But is it any wonder, when the childhood games we once played casually steered us in this direction? It can certainly add extra excitement, replay value, rewards and content to a game, but can also be an easy way of developers to take money from their consumers. However you feel about random items, trading card games and blind bags, if they make money, they’ll be around forever – and it seems they’re here to stay in our video games, too.

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About Simon Blish

Writing, drawing, editing - Simon loves it all.