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The Psychology Behind Loot Boxes

Gamers like loot boxes. The possibility of getting a legendary skin for our favorite character or gun is stimulating and keeps us coming back for more. These rewards appear in games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, and a new fan favorite, Apex Legends. We’ll grind for hours in these games hoping to obtain a specific skin. Often, “just one more game” turns into “just one more level” so we can get our next box. Why are we so compelled to spend our hard-earned money on in-game cosmetics that typically don’t affect our gameplay?

Apex Legends Loot Box Courtesy of IGN

It all boils down to the adrenaline rush associated with gambling. In this context, gambling is betting on uncertain outcomes. That is what you do every time you spend money on a box where the possible loot drops are randomized. This randomization is an incentive for players to try their luck again and spend more money on the game in search of the perfect cosmetic. According to Dr. Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, “Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis.” In other words, the center in our brain that regulates our control of reward-motivated behavior enjoys uncertainty more than it does predictability.

Microtransactions

Some players decide to spend their money on microtransactions. A famous example of this is in the game Fortnite. Fortnite currently does not offer a form of loot boxes. Instead, players spend real money on V-Bucks to purchase the Battle Pass or skins and emotes. The problem with microtransactions, like this, is that some games don’t offer them. The only way you can receive skins in Overwatch, for example, is through opening loot boxes. You get a box every time you level, or you can buy them. Regardless of how you get these boxes, they still resemble gambling — an element of the unknown.

Loot Boxes Courtesy of SteamUnpowered

Why Buy Loot Boxes?

In short, loot boxes are fun. The rush you receive while opening them, and the inevitable disappointment or success, adds onto the adrenaline felt while playing a game. I suggest grinding for boxes instead of buying them. I fully support spending money on games, and I’m guilty of doing that many times, but when the success rate is so low, you’re better off buying a skin for $10 then spending $50 on boxes only to fail at getting the cosmetic you want.

The best feeling is obtaining a loot box through playing and randomly getting that legendary skin. It feels more as if you worked for that cosmetic instead of spending money on a low percentage chance.