What Destiny 2’s Eververse Can Teach Us About the Psychology of Loot Boxes

For Destiny 2 players, Eververse is a major point of contention. Eververse is a fictional trading company that sells loot boxes for real-world money. These loot boxes, known as Bright Engrams in the game’s lore, contain random cosmetic items like weapon skins, dyes, and emotes.

To some players, Eververse is the root of Destiny 2’s problems. They feel that the game has been tuned to funnel players toward loot box purchases, and that content that doesn’t lead back to purchases — in other words, most of the game — has been neglected. That frustration led a few hundred players to petition the United Nations to somehow put a stop to it.

Clearly, Bungie’s efforts to make Eververse a successful, welcome part of Destiny 2 haven’t gone entirely to plan. But as Jamie Madigan explains over at The Psychology of Games, Eververse is still a textbook example of many of the psychological tricks used to encourage us to spend money on the mere chance to win random, mechanically-useless loot.

One of the first things I noticed is how Tess invokes the norm of reciprocity. At a few points in the campaign an icon is placed at Tess’s store, telling the player that he or she has something to gain by talking to the NPC. Indeed, Tess has a free bright engram gift for you, which can be opened (decoded, whatever) to reveal some sweet cosmetic items! Tess even tells you something along the lines of how she appreciates your heroic efforts and wants you to succeed against Earth’s enemies. And according to the psychological principle of reciprocity, you may feel a little obligated to pay back the favor by doing a little shopping.

The reciprocity effect is put to use by marketers and savvy businesspeople all the time. For years the March of Dimes charity sent me a lovely set of return address labels for use with my Christmas cards. The labels were a free gift, but not coincidentally, they came in the same envelope as a plea to donate. The message is clear: “Dude, we totally just gave you some free stuff. You should return the favor with a donation.” Psychologist Robert Cialdini explained in a 2001 article in Scientific American how the Disabled American Veterans organization used this same trick to increase the success rate of their appeals for donations from 18% to 35%.2

 
Madigan isn’t condemning Bungie or the Disabled American Veterans organization here — psychological tricks are at work in all sorts of things we encounter every day. But he does a great job of explaining why we want so badly to buy even when it does us little measurable good.

There are other tricks at work, too — playing off our love of unpredictable rewards, for instance. Or the pleasure we get from anticipation, bright lights and celebratory sounds. That’s certainly why some of us (me, mostly – ed) go back to open Overwatch loot boxes when we haven’t played the game in six months.

Unfortunately, for some players, these tricks are too effective. Waypoint recently spoke to gamers who’ve suffered serious negative consequences after overspending on loot boxes, and each story is tragic. It’s stories like those that have put these mechanics in the crosshairs of legislators around the world, and which may lead to them being restricted in much the same way as gambling.

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