Gambling and Hearthstone: Your Response
Here is the Blizzard Forum thread for reference.
Our most recent article received an unprecedented amount of feedback from readers here on LH and on Blizzard’s Hearthstone forums. The volume and quality of comments was huge – over three pages of discussion on the latter and double-digit comments on the former. I’m blown away by the level of engagement the community has shown – but anyone can see that this topic was going to be highly contentious.
The issue of gambling elements (if any) in Hearthstone is a huge and complicated topic; it deserves attention. It’s also not been discussed much in the media. Other Blizzard games such as Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm have been under heavy scrutiny, even though both are smaller than Hearthstone both in terms of player base and revenue, yet share very similar loot box mechanics.
Activision Blizzard now gets over half of its total revenue from in-game microtransactions – totaling $4bn in 2017. We can be sure that Blizzard and other video game developers are keeping a close eye on the worldwide debate over loot boxes and other digital imitations.
We’ve been hearing a lot from the media and from governments around the world about loot boxes in other games. This week, I’m following up on the debate. We’re going to look at what you, the players, thought about gambling in Hearthstone.
It was surprising to see that people seemed roughly equally split on whether Hearthstone was like gambling or not. There was a clear divide between those who said it was definitely not gambling, and those who were concerned about the impact its addictive qualities were having on themselves and their family.
About as many people justified their high spending as those who, on the other extreme, justified spending nothing. Somewhat shockingly, there were a lot of commenters who were dead certain that in their opinion, Hearthstone (or large parts of it) is gambling – four or five on the first page of the Blizzard thread used words like “definitely”, “obviously” or “of course”.
Let’s have a look at some individual points that stood out.
On the official Hearthstone forums, player “Psychologic” said that “you can’t cash out, so it’s not really gambling.” “Oukka” makes this point very clearly and eruditely too. This is a pretty important point that I made myself in the article. The Netherlands Gambling Authority takes this approach. They criticised games like CS:GO and Dota 2 because there are huge third-party markets surrounding them, where skins can sell for thousands. The only currency we get out of Hearthstone cards is Arcane Dust.
“Ranger” writes: “I’m slightly ashamed to admit I’ve spent quite a bit more money on packs than I have intended because of that rush and wanting a specific card.” I read an article on Eurogamer the other day about someone who spent over $10,000 on FIFA player packs – which function almost identically to Hearthstone packs – in two years. Luckily, the player in question claims to have a ‘healthy disposable income’ so he wasn’t financially ruined. It makes me wonder how many people have spent similar amounts in our beloved children’s card game.
A major point that came up was in response to my point that Blizzard uses psychological tools, such as exciting colours and sounds, to encourage repeat pack purchases. “TheRiddler” and “Hdheggs” argue that using psychology is normal and commonplace, even attractive. “What – are companies never allowed to run promotions, discounts, or ask for your business”. “I’m glad they use psychology, because that is part of what makes it fun.”
You’re not wrong. Most companies do use every trick in the book to get us to buy their product, and they always have. The problem some people have with loot boxes and their addictive nature, however, is that they can target children and other vulnerable people. In the UK, gambling companies are regularly fined by advertising regulators for making ads that might appeal to children. Moreover, tactics such as limited time promotions on gambling – “bet now, last chance offer!” – have actually been criticised by the UK’s ads watchdog for their manipulative nature.
One commenter makes a more complex point. “One needs to clearly define the context of gambling… Is buying stock/funds gambling?” Context is vitally important. But is a slot machine not a slot machine no matter where you play it, or how many times you’ve played it, or how much money you’ve won? Player skill has nothing to do with buying 80 packs because you want to make Mecha’thun and Star Aligner Druid, and nothing else.
Hearthstone tournament results are defined mostly by skill. Adapting to RNG is how you get good at this game. But no one has an issue with FIFA’s or any other game’s PvP content. It’s the slot-machine core that makes many gamers angry.
MVP poster “Magnijung” said: “I hate opening packs.” This just breaks my heart!
Now we come to the the most popular argument. “Hellonslaught” on our own (vastly superior!) LiquidHearth thread wrote: “if HS is gambling then every single card game is gambling as well.” Many, many people made this point, and it’s been made in the real world too. In 1999 a number of families tried to sue Nintendo of America because their child got addicted to Pokémon cards. They said that because the rarest and best cards were not guaranteed, the packs were set up to cause addiction – and they saw it in the way their kids begged them endlessly for more packs.
Unsurprisingly, Nintendo won all the court cases with ease. Card packs may be “mini raffles”, as Oukka puts it, but until you can easily make real money off your “wins” – your shiny Charizards and your Dr. Booms – it doesn’t matter. 9-year-olds in 1999 didn’t know how to sell their Charizards on Ebay, but they can sell their CS:GO knives online in 2018.
What’s the verdict?
It’s clear that the issue is very unclear (!). The community of players is just as divided as the world’s regulators. We definitely deserve a pat on the back for getting no further than people who are paid presumably large salaries by their respective governments to think about these things!
We may yet see warning labels on card packs. Several US state governments have proposed putting warning labels on loot boxes. It’s impossible to say where the gaming industry is heading with loot boxes and their ilk. Who could have predicted ten years ago that we would be buying half a game and have to buy the other half as a DLC later? Loot boxes may not really be gambling, and they may not exist forever. Microtransactions are here to stay, for better or worse.