Video Games

Diablo Immortal and the Paternalistic Futility of Video Game Loot-Box Bans

The game won't be playable in Belgium or the Netherlands thanks to local gambling laws.


If you have any remote connection to the world of video games, you've probably heard of the Diablo franchise of games. 

The Diablo franchise has been going in various forms since the late 1990s, and it is among the more popular and well-known brands in gaming. Naturally, it has been stretched across multiple sequels and spinoffs, including, most recently, Diablo Immortal, a game that recently became available in a not-yet-finalized Beta mode. 

But players who reside in Belgium or the Netherlands won't be able to play the game, at least not in its current form, apparently because its gameplay mechanics rely on so-called "loot boxes," which both countries have banned. 

To understand the loot box debate, it's useful to understand a little bit about the way games in the Diablo series play. 

The franchise combines top-down action-fantasy role-playing-game mechanics with a wealth of randomly generated, discoverable in-game items that players can find and use during gameplay—weapons, armor, clothing, magical artifacts or effects, and so forth. Some of these items can make the game easier or more interesting to play by granting the player new or more powerful abilities, while in other cases they are merely cosmetic, changing the look of a player's character without granting any new or improved abilities. In video game jargon, these items are known as "loot." 

Progression in the Diablo games, as well as scores of other games that use similar loot-based gameplay mechanics, is as much about obtaining better loot as about achieving specific in-game goals. These games dole out upgrades on a randomized basis, often with odds that are opaque to players, so there are incentives to keep playing, to keep hacking away at monsters and discovering new areas. 

The specifics vary from game to game, but generally speaking these games allow players to find new and better loot by exploring in-game territory or defeating enemies. But in some cases, there are alternative methods for gaining better loot, like game-related stores, that allow players to simply purchase upgrades. And in some cases, those upgrades take the form of mystery boxes, the contents of which are randomly generated. That means players can pay to take what is essentially a dice role in hopes of obtaining better stuff. 

The argument against loot boxes is that mechanisms along these lines are akin to gambling, particularly if the items have some sort of value outside the game itself—that is, if they could potentially be traded or sold for cash. In the United States, the most prominent proponent of anti-loot-box laws is probably Sen. Josh Hawley (D–Mo.), who in 2019 proposed a ban on loot boxes in games aimed at kids. The restrictions in Belgium and the Netherlands obviously go further, treating everyone the way Hawley wants to treat children—and making clear that loot box bans are an inherently paternalistic form of regulation. These rules work from the assumption that gamers need politicians to protect them from aspects or elements of games they might want to play. 

It's true that gamers often express frustration with these mechanisms, but publishers know this and calibrate their games accordingly. In 2018, major games publisher Electronic Arts dropped loot boxes from the game Star Wars: Battlefront II due to player backlash—no laws required.

There are already signs of such a backlash with Diablo Immortal, with several reviews noting fan complaints about the game's payment-based mechanics, and fans posting deeply negative review scores. It's currently at a 0.3 player score on MetaCritic which is reportedly the lowest user review score ever. Not surprisingly, quite a few players have left comments indicating that they simply won't play the game. In any case, the point is that these disputes can be worked out between players and game producers without political involvement. 

It's not entirely clear what particular gameplay mechanism triggered the decision to pull the new Diablo game from the Netherlands and Belgium. It's always possible that some version of the game will become available in those countries at a later date. A spokesperson for Activision Blizzard told Ars Technica that the decision "is related to the current operating environment for games in those countries." As Ars notes, players in those countries have also posted purported messages from the company saying they would not be able to install Diablo Immortal due to "gambling restrictions." 

But what is clear enough is that these sorts of prohibitions don't necessarily result in game makers eliminating features or changing their games. Rather, it appears that game publishers will stick with certain features and simply decline to release some games in some markets. Gamers don't get better games; they simply don't get some games at all.