It’s worse than gambling.
Let’s say you go to a casino to play roulette. I use that game because it has the simplest math.
First of all, at least at a legit casino, you have assurances that the game is not rigged. There is a gambling commission regulating the games. You also know the odds. You know that a bet on red has a 46.37% chance of doubling your money and a 53.63% chance of losing all your money. You know that if you keep betting on red over time you will eventually lose all your money. You also know that if you somehow get very lucky, you could get a large amount of money and stop and leave with more money than you started with. DO NOT DO THIS. Even though it is possible, it is not likely.
Now consider some simple gambling. The crane game at the “arcade”. You put money in the crane machine. You know that you are never getting any of that money back ever. You have 100% chance of losing everything. You could, however, win a toy of some kind. You don’t know the value of the toy. You don’t know the odds of winning. There is no guarantee the crane is not rigged. It in fact, is rigged.
Here is the operating manual for a basic crane machine. Read it and weep if you ever believed claw machines involved any skill whatsoever. They do not. Even the Omegaclaw was likely a sham.
So what of video games with microtransactions with lootboxes? They all have some things in common. Their randomness is at best, just as evil as cranes, and possibly more evil. The odds are secret. You are guaranteed to lose 100% of your money. You get in return some random stuff, and you do not know the odds of getting what you want. It could easily be programmed to be more psychologically predatory than claw machines, changing the odds based on user profiles and such.
They are all worse than cranes because at least a crane gives you a physical object that has at least a non-zero value. Even a tiny bootleg plushie is worth something. In a video game all you get is some bits changed in a database. This has no value. Also, the game is not going to last forever. When the game dies, your value is all gone. Even if you win, you get effectively nothing.
Yet, it varies highly by game. Let’s examine some actual real world games.
1 - Overwatch, DotA, Counter-Strike, etc. Everything you can gamble for in these games is purely cosmetic. Overwatch costs money to buy, but that’s it. If you did care about getting cosmetic stuff, then you would fall into a trap of losing a bunch of money on an incredibly evil scheme as described above. However, smart people are able to play and get full enjoyment of the game without gambling a dime. Nothing is denied someone who wisely refuses to gamble. Therefore it is fine to play these games. Just be aware that your free play enjoyment is being funded by idiots and children who are being fleeced by one of history’s most crooked casinos.
2 - Hearthstone, Gwent, M:tG, other digital CCGs, etc. While each CCG has different payout schemes, some better than others, they are all card games, and have the same fundamental problems. These are games where you need to invest time and money to get all the game pieces. Some game pieces you can do without, and some you need to be competitive.
These companies could just set a flat price for each release/expansion. They use a gambling/pack opening scheme to raise their revenue on the same product. They could charge a flat rate for all the cards. But what if the amount of packs required to get a full set is random? Some people get a full set for $200, some for $500 some for even more. Yet, some people don’t want ALL the cards. They get the cards they want for less money. Time can also be used instead of money. It’s a game with a varying price. Rather than having a set price, they let people pay in accordance to how much they can afford and how much they care. Effectively it’s just a scheme where you get the maximum money out of each player. It comes out to way more than $50-100 per player.
Also, keeping people from getting the full set easily allows them to offer rewards to players for continuing to play over time. If you got a full set of HearthStone cards for $100 per expansion, you wouldn’t do your quests every day, because you wouldn’t need gold. Thus, you wouldn’t be constantly playing and getting hooked, and you wouldn’t buy the next expansion since you aren’t playing the game that much. Only competitive players who actually enjoyed the game itself would be motivated to stick with it. People quit Netrunner a lot more easily than they quit M:tG because there’s no hook of valuable prizes keeping people locked in.
3 - The straight up evil pay to win games. Actual game content is locked behind gambling. Actual tools that give you an advantage in game are locked behind pay/time walls. Straight up pay to win with no shame. The card games aren’t even this evil. They are pay to play. Once you pay enough you are in, and can compete with the champs Here you have almost no limit to how much money you can burn. Whoever spends the most wins the most. Is it even a game or just a place where the idiots who set the most money on fire get to have big egos and show off?
This is so much more insidious than even an actual casino. In an actual casino if you lose, you know it. You walk out with less money than you went in with. Remember in a pay to win game, every dollar you spend is 100% gone. You have a 100% chance of losing. Yet, they make you feel like a winner every single time. You always get something.
Imagine a slot machine. You put in a dollar. The dollar is gone. Yet, the screen says winner. Fireworks go off. Fancy pictures appear. No money comes out. Yet, you are a winner! You won this jpg! Put in another dollar. Congratulations! You won again! What did you win? Your prize is that you get someone to tell you you are a winner! Oh, you’re money? It’s gone now. Bye bye.