Loot Boxes, and the Appeal of Higher Education

Video games are great because they allow a person to scratch their competitive itch without suffering any real-life consequences. It is great to win a round of Overwatch or get a multi-kill in Destiny, but if a player fails utterly in either of these games it really doesn’t matter. Video games allow us to test ourselves without worrying about it too much. They allow us to prove our skills where no one gets hurt and we all get to keep playing.

So, if video games don’t really matter, if there are no real consequences for winning or losing, then does it matter if the games are actually fair? That depends on the player you ask, and how they feel about loot boxes. You can’t read or discuss video games much anymore without dealing with the issue of loot boxes. Sometimes they are called crates, and sometimes they are presented as pinatas, but many recent games have some form of loot box. They are all essentially the same.

A loot box is a set of items that provide in-game advantages that you spend real-life money to acquire. If you are bad at a competitive shooting game you can spend real money to get special weapons. If you are bad at a strategy game, you can spend real money to get powerful units so you can win without having to think strategically. For non video-gamers, imagine you are playing poker, but you can give the dealer twenty bucks for a guaranteed ace in every hand. Is that game still fair?

In games with loot boxes, is it skill that matters, or how much money the player can afford to spend? Is it fair for a person who has spent countless hours perfecting their technique in a game to be destroyed by a player who just started, but can afford to pay for extra body armor and rocket launchers? In a competitive environment, should people with money be allowed to pay for advantages over people without? Is anything really fair when someone can pay in order to get ahead?

Starting Blocks

“Okay, everyone, remember #4 gets a head start. He paid for the Golden Racer package.”

Of course, in the video game world these questions aren’t important, because video games aren’t important. They are frivolous. There is a real-life equivalent of loot boxes though. Something people can pay for to gain advantages regardless of their skill, and something not everyone can afford. It is called graduate school.

Everyone says if you want to get a good job then you have to go to college. Fine. I’m not sure this is true, but I can accept it. But then, everyone says if you want a really good job where you actually make decisions, then you must have a master’s degree. Having an advanced degree automatically puts a person in a higher tier of responsibility and income potential, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they deserve it.

You can work in a library for decades, but still need to pay for a master’s degree in order to be considered a librarian. You can build a thousand stable bridges, but without a degree you are no engineer. Should a person who has spent years honing skill and experience have to report to someone who has neither, but could afford to go to school? Is it fair to value costly academic credentials over practical knowledge? Is a person’s potential for excellence really determined by how much money they can afford to spend?

Many say it is hard work going to graduate school. I don’t know, because I can’t afford to pay and find out. Therein lies the problem. I don’t know if paying for weapons in video games diminishes the importance of player skill, because the only way to know is to shell out the cash, and I don’t want to do that. Personally, I think pay-to-play schemes are unfair and create unbalanced situations, but I don’t have any statistics to back that up. Without an advanced degree in data analysis, would anyone believe me anyway?

Still, it seems clear to me that loot boxes and graduate school are the same thing. People can either pay for advantages, no matter the cost, or risk falling behind and having to answer to inferior players. Neither is a tenable option. There is one big difference between loot boxes and graduate school. The fairness of video games doesn’t matter, but fairness in the real-world does. Doesn’t it?


“Are you sure that’s something you can afford?”