My Personal Experience
I never really saw what the big deal with loot boxes, packs, skins etc was. Who cares what other people do with their money? Sure, some people might get the same hit of adrenaline by buying and opening random crap in various games as they do from gambling, but who am I to judge? There's a reason that the phrase "A fool and his money are soon parted" has enjoyed such longevity in our vernacular, but I never really bothered to look deeper into the whole issue until recently.
You see, my son is 12 now, and he and his friends have started to earn some pocket money via chores, odd jobs, etc. I've been really proud of my boy's work ethic. He takes extra care when he's being paid for a job, and he feels proud of the work that he's done knowing that his work resulted directly in compensation. He actively seeks out work, like mowing the lawn, and he makes sure that he gets it done properly and in a timely manner. It really is hard to explain just how satisfying it is when your kids behave in a way that shows that the hard work you put into trying to shape them into a good person is paying off. It's an awesome feeling.
I noticed something else very shortly after my son started realizing that he could turn his labor into profit. He and his friends would almost invariably take the money they'd earned and throw it at digital items. I'm not just talking a Fortnite skin, although my son has purchased quite a few of those; I'm talking about Halo 5 REQ Packs, Rare Card packs in Jurassic World on his tablet, etc. Pretty much any game that has a random element thrown in on top of its microtransactions holds an irresistible lure for him. He'll go for months without playing Halo 5, load it up on a whim and instantly want to drop $20 on REQ Packs as soon as he hears the game's music.
I don't have a problem with adults that can't control their impulses, but when a 12 year old loses their damn mind because you won't let them drop yet another $20 on digital bullshit it starts to sink in that maybe there is something more to this whole loot box controversy. Like I said earlier, it's not just an issue with my son. Every single one of his schoolmates that he plays with absolutely throws money at loot boxes every chance they get. They are young enough that they don't have any perspective on what video games were like before loot boxes. If you want something in a game these days it's just as common to throw money at the screen until you get it in a pack or box as it is to unlock it through gameplay via skill or grinding.
My son and his friends aren't quiet. They all get into an Xbox live party (he uses his Kinect rather than a headset for voice chat) and just yell at each other constantly. Even without trying I often overhear their conversations, and buying REQ Packs and loot boxes in other forms is often a topic of conversation. They lose their damn minds when someone finally gets some coveted item, which makes the rest of them even more eager to drop money trying to get that same thing, or the next carrot on the end of the next stick. Not only do they get the adrenaline hit of finally getting what they've been wanting, but their desire is actually supported by peer pressure.
So, take a bunch of kids who haven't mastered any real form of impulse control, throw them into a scenario where they get a hit of adrenaline and feel like a hero to their friends, encouraging each other to open even MORE packs, and you have a recipe for trouble, but that isn't the only issue. One of the biggest problems I've noticed is that throwing money at these kinds of things completely distorts their perception of the value of money. The things they get from packs and boxes have essentially zero value. Sure, they might get some thing that makes them happy temporarily, but there's always that next item, those other packs, some other shiny digital trinket to be excited about getting only to be forgotten shortly after it's finally acquired.
It's not uncommon to watch my son and his friend nickel and dime themselves out of all of their hard earned money, spending freely on digital crap that they only care about for a few moments anyway, and that's IF they actually got something they wanted to begin with. More often than not they don't get the coveted thingamajig; instead, they blow money opening packs that provide them with nothing. The problem isn't in understanding the risk; they all know that they are most likely not going to get exactly what they want. The problem is that, to them, this is just the way things work. You simply need to throw more money at it until you finally get what you wanted, but the things they wanted aren't tangible, and there is no way to recoup any of the value that they put in to trying to get whatever item they were after.
This poses a real problem when trying to get them to save money. My son and I actually got into an argument recently about what he should spend his money on. His 12th birthday just passed, and he was gifted money by a few people that, when combined with some money from chores, added up to $70. He's been begging for a few Nerf blasters for Christmas, and he could easily afford the two that he wanted the most with that $70. The first thing he did once all of his friends left was hand me the money and say "Here dad, I'm going to spend this on REQ Packs."
I was completely taken aback. I asked him if he was sure he didn't want to go to the store to pick up the Nerf blasters that he'd been dying to get. He said "No, there's something I want in Halo 5." I asked him if he was sure he'd get it. He said "No, but the more packs I open the better chance I'll have at it." I told him that he could be certain to get exactly what he wanted if he just bought the Nerf stuff. "My friends and I REALLY want to get this item."
I told him to wait for a few moments as I pulled up his transaction history. Since the beginning of this past summer he'd dropped over $100 on in-game items, skins, packs and boxes. I try not to force my kids to spend their money in any particular way—it's their money after all, so they should be in control of how they spend it—but the fact that I told him how much he'd already spent and it didn't even seem to register with him, took me completely by surprise. The total dollar amount meant nothing to him. There was no concept of value. It just didn't register to him.
I tried a different approach. I asked him if, knowing exactly the things he got with that $100, he would spend $100 to have it all. His face suddenly changed and he said "No way!" I asked him why he would possibly want to spend another $70 on that kind of stuff and he blew me away with his reply. "Opening packs is fun, and my friends all want me to."
It's not the things they want from the packs, and it's certainly not the crap that they actually get when they open them that keeps these kids hell bent on throwing money at them, it's simply the thrill of opening the packs that keeps them pumping money into them. Add to that a heaping dose of peer pressure, and the fact that this kind of behavior has been completely normalized for his generation, and you get a recipe for absolute disaster. Of course I can only speak from my personal experience, but I now see the loot box issue in a completely different light. This isn't simply about conning people out of money by essentially forcing them to gamble for digital items, although I do think that's a huge part of it. There are much broader implications for kids who are still forming their worldview. There is an entire generation who could quite possibly struggle to understand the value of money because they have a system of positive reinforcement that is teaching them that money is simply for experiencing the thrill of opening a pack or box that contains nothing of real value.
I essentially forced my son to go to the store with me with his cash in hand. He was not happy about it, but I made a deal with him that if he found nothing that he wanted to spend his money on at the store then he could spend it in whatever game he chose once we got home. After much deliberation he finally decided on the two Nerf blasters. When we got home I asked him if he'd trade the blasters back to me if I could guarantee that he'd get exactly what he wanted. He responded with a "No way!"
A few days later he'd earned another $10. He immediately asked me if he could spend the money for loot boxes. We had an entire conversation about purchasing power and the things he could buy if he was willing to simply wait and save up more money. He agreed, but said "I REALLY want to open some packs though; my friend just opened a whole bunch of them but didn't get what he wanted."
I've been playing video games since 1985, and overall I think they are a net positive on our culture. They are a great way to bond with friends and can offer healthy, interesting, and even educational entertainment for people of all ages. Many times throughout the years people have tried to tie violent video games to violent behavior, which has been disproved and is easy for me to brush aside simply via my own personal experience, but I'm really starting to see a problem with loot boxes. From where I stand they are specifically designed to trip a part of your brain that is tied to irrational, compulsive behavior, and my personal experience tells me that this is having a profound effect on kids. It's possible I'm simply being overly sensitive as a parent, although based on the traction that the legal battles against loot box practices are getting I doubt it. The more thought I put into it the more convinced I become that they are specifically designed to be exploitative of people who lack impulse control, and children almost universally fall into that group.
It almost feels contradictory for me to rail against loot boxes while simultaneously thinking the concept of videogames causing violence is ridiculous, but there are major differences between the concepts. Violence is tactile and easily understood. It's quite easy as a parent to teach your children that violence is wrong, because almost everyone understands physical pain, and it's easy to teach why inflicting pain on others is a terrible thing to do in the real world. Fiscal responsibility and impulse control are far more difficult concepts to explain, let alone provide perspective on. Hell, all you have to do is look around to see that most adults in the U.S. don't handle their money well, let alone kids with nothing to lose. Financial responsibility is an ephemeral concept that is easy to explain, but it's nearly impossible for a twelve year old to feel the sting of poor financial habits, and in the end that is my major problem with the current state of loot boxes. Since most adults don't even do a good job at managing their financial habits, how is a new generation of kids going to manage if they form terrible spending habits and grow into adulthood with a completely skewed view on what money is worth, what it can buy, and how it should be spent? Not only do loot box system designs encourage kids to blow money on what amounts to next to nothing, but it feels good to do it, and their friends are all caught up in the same loop, encouraging each other to continue to dive deeper and spend even more.
Ultimately, regardless of the direction of the legality of loot boxes takes in the future, the reality is that we have them now and we have to deal with them for at least the time being. If you have kids, I'd strongly recommend paying very close attention to how they view loot boxes, how they spend money on them, and how they value that money. There's always a chance that our kids will grow out of impulsive behavior, but they can't do it without guidance. It's going to be particularly hard since so many games dangle the carrot-on-a-stick in front of them, especially considering the fact that their peer group is not only chasing that carrot, but actively encouraging them to do so as well.