Japan is one of the few countries where most forms of gambling are illegal. The market for gambling still exists however, and in some ways, gambling forms an intricate part of Japanese culture. The demand for gambling style activities has created many loopholes, and Pachinko, Gacha and video game loot boxes have all become incredibly popular. Westernised nations are quite familiar with the rise of loot boxes and video game gambling, but Japan has taken the concept to a whole new level.
By far, the most popular gambling activity in Japan is Pachinko. According to Japanese law, Pachinko machines and similar games have been excluded from the criminal code for historic and cultural reasons. The fact that you cannot win real money in Pachinko parlours also creates a loophole.
Pachinko machines are large, brightly lit electronic video games that in many ways resemble a Pinball board, but with the reels of a slot in the middle. Filled with multiple levers and flashing lights, Pachinko games require players to purchase a set number of balls that will be let loose in the machine. Players must then try and capture balls in a designated hole, and when they have collected a set number of balls the reels of the slot will spin, and payouts are in the form of more balls.
At the end of their session, players can swap winning Pachinko balls for various gifts or tokens at a Pachinko Parlour booth. In some cases, the tokens can be taken to a neighbouring store where they are exchanged for cash in order to skirt the gambling law.
Another popular form of gambling in Japan is Gacha. First seen in 2012, Gacha games are mobile video games that have some form of built-in monetised mechanic. With more and more Japanese games making their way into the western world, Gacha games and loot boxes have become globally recognised, and are intrinsically linked.
Most commonly found in Japanese role-playing games Gacha offers players the opportunity to roll for new characters or game boosts using virtual currency that can be earned in game. Players can also pay cash for in-game currency to allow them to gain that all-important instant gratification. The odds of getting the character you want are fairly low and there are no guarantees that you will ever get the desired character, no matter how many virtual credits you spend.
Mobile Gacha games often have three different types of Gacha including the standard game Gacha, event Gacha and friend Gacha. Standard Gacha can be easily earned and often do not contain the more sought-after units. Event Gacha are similar, but are only available for a limited time. This is where players can find exclusive offers and rare units at a better rate. Friend Gacha allows players to promote their game on social networks or engage with other players in exchange for in-game currency.
Loot boxes are basically the follow-on products from Gacha games. As most gamers are aware, loot boxes are digital treasure chests which offer up the chance to gain new weapons, outfits and power-boosts. Loot boxes can be bought with in-game currency, which can be earned, but in most cases they are purchased using cash. Like Gacha, loot boxes have an element of gambling to them as players are not fully aware of what they will get in each box. While they may be hoping for a particular weapon, they might end up with a character outfit or game cheat.
While Pachinko has a strong cultural heritage and Japanese authorities turn a relatively blind eye to it, the essential gambling nature of both Gacha and loot boxes has not gone unnoticed. In China, a law has been passed stating that all Gacha games must disclose the odds or chances of winning. Similarly, in the US, Apple has initiated a protocol where all mobile games offering loot boxes must disclose the various odds of each unit inside the loot box.
Japan’s underground gambling culture is one that is fascinating to explore, and its link to loot boxes proves once again that technology is closing the gap in so many ways.