Explore the phenomenon: Loot boxes

Digital games and the loot box phenomenon

Used in digital games, a loot box refers to a virtual surprise box, which gives the players rewards. Loot boxes may contain a reward for completing the game task or an occasional gift after a game session. More typically, however, players need to pay for opening a loot box. Loot boxes can be bought with real money or with money used in the game, which is either bought or earned by playing the game.

There are many types of loot boxes, and they can affect the game in various ways. By opening them, players may receive random in-game benefits from a range of rewards, including in-game currency, a virtual object, an additional power or perk. The player does not know in advance what a specific box contains. Loot box prizes can affect the player’s success in the game, the progression of the game or the opening up of new content. The term for this is ‘pay-to-win’, as the player can gain considerable benefits compared to other players by using money. The prizes can also be cosmetic, in which case they do not bring special benefits to game play. These cosmetic rewards include skins, which can be used to customise the appearance of the characters or the items they use. Various types of content are valued on the basis of their rarity, which is also connected to the probability of getting a particular prize from a loot box.

The game industry earns its highest revenue from premium content, including loot boxes, that are available in free games. Many once successful games have been transformed into free-to-play (F2P) games in order to boost their profits. This revenue model is based on the fact that the player may decide to buy premium content to make the game more varied. Premium add-ons, such as loot box, aim to maximise the player’s long-term use of money while playing the game.

Loot boxes have caused concern among the authorities and experts of game education, as they present a risk of monetary exploitation. The inclusion of loot boxes in digital games is leading to an increasing resemblance between gaming and gambling: loot boxes are connected to micropayments and their rewards are only occasional. Loot boxes bring gambling and gambling-related problems into the daily lives of underage children. Players may overspend or use someone else’s, for example their parent’s, credit card to buy loot boxes. Tackling the phenomenon with legislation is difficult since Finland has placed no restrictions on the selling of loot boxes. Although loot boxes have certain features that resemble gambling games, they have not yet been classified as such because the rewards obtained by players cannot be exchanged for real money.

Loot boxes leverage similar psychological mechanisms as gambling games. The opening of boxes is exciting, and the feeling is further enhanced with beautiful visual elements. Both desired and unwanted rewards lure the player to open more boxes and spend more time playing the game. When opening boxes, players may see rare or valuable content, which they fail to obtain. However, this type of “close call” makes the player keep trying. The allure of loot boxes is sometimes enhanced by popular YouTube videos that show how the loot boxes are opened and how people react to their content. Sponsored videos do not necessarily reflect genuine probabilities and the desired wins are easier.

It has also been pointed out that players often have no realistic understanding about the probabilities of success. This distorted mental image leads to the purchase and opening of loot boxes.

Recognition of the loot box phenomenon is part of media literacy. It is good to know how loot boxes work, how they benefit the game industry and what mechanisms they use to influence the players. Playing should be an enjoyable pastime that fosters the feeling of safety and control. When it comes to underage children, the important thing is to support families’ awareness and also to strengthen the player’s own assessment abilities and criticism and to support responsible behaviour.

For further information on playing and premium content, click the links below.

Children’s mobile game purchases, Finnish Competition and Consumer Authority (Kilpailu- ja kuluttajavirasto), KKV

Marketing aimed at children, Finnish Competition and Consumer Authority (Kilpailu- ja kuluttajavirasto), KKV

What are free-to-play games?, Kati Alha, Tampere University [English subtitles]


In support of game education

Pelisivistys ja pelikasvatus (Gaming bildung and game education), Mikko Meriläinen, Tampere University [English subtitles]

He is just playing – Educator’s guide, Media Literacy School (Mediataitokoulu), National Audiovisual Institute (Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen instituutti) KAVI

Game education, EHYT Finnish Association for Substance Abuse Prevention

Game education in families with children, The Mannerheim League for Child Welfare (Mannerheimin Lastensuojeluliitto) MLL


Text: KAVI

Image: Siru Tirronen

CC BY 4.0

The media landscape of children and young people keeps changing, with new phenomena following each other back-to-back. Providing pupils with tools for understanding and processing these phenomena is important. This learning package is part of Pathways to New Media Phenomena – Information and Exercise Materials Series. The series includes information and exercises for the teacher and the pupils. You can explore new phenomena in a meaningful way with the help of the “How to discuss new media literacy phenomena through pedagogical means?” method. 

Material for the teacher

A video on loot box - a surprise box
Approach to processing new media literacy phenomena in teaching
Competence descriptions as a support for goal-oriented teaching
Materials for media education

Material for the pupil

Information: loot boxes
Questions for the discussion and exercises
Examine the picture
Explore the phenomenon: Loot boxes