What the Heck are Surprise Mechanics?

Electronic Arts (EA), the publisher of hugely popular game series like FIFABattlefield, and Battlefront, has taken some lumps over its use of loot boxes as a revenue stream. In mid June of this year, executives from EA and Epic Games appeared before the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee to answer questions about loot boxes and other monetization techniques. 

Kerry Hopkins, EA Vice President for Legal and Government Affairs, snapped up her 15 minutes of internet fame at the time for objecting to the term “loot box” and instead offering the phrase “surprise mechanic” as an alternative. A few minutes later she also offered “randomized content mechanic” if that wasn’t clinical enough for you.

EA Vice President for Legal and Government Affairs, Kerry Hopkins

This struck many as a little Orwellian, as it takes something that a lot of people find objectionable and reframes it as benign or even friendly. Hopkins even directly compared loot boxes with kinder eggs or other toys that parents happily buy children because they contain a random treat or prize. Similar comparisons to baseball or Pokemon card decks are also common.

Hopkins’s answer seemed unsatisfying because it sounded like a painful bit of corporate speak that didn’t directly address the concerns everyone has about loot boxes. A lot of the online reactions I saw objected to lumping these monetization techniques into the broader category of “things that are fun because they are exciting.”

But, you know, if I squint and tilt my head a bit, I can kind of see her point. But it’s not being made where she thinks it is.

A long line of research on how to get people to learn something or repeat a behavior can be summarized in the concept of a core loop:

People perceive a cue, then they engage in a behavior in response to that cue, then they get rewarded for that behavior, then they look out for the cue so that they can take another spin on the loop. In the context of a loot-based game like Diablo or Borderlands, it might look like this: 

You see an elite enemy or a huge treasure chest. You kill the enemy or open the chest. You get loot. You keep an eye out for the next elite or big treasure chest because you’ve learned that killing them gives you good loot.

But research has also shown that this loop is tightest and learned most quickly when we only sometimes get the awesome loot, and the rest of the time we get nothing or nothing special. It’s under these random reward schedules that we are most motivated to perpetuate the loop. 

In a way, this is counter intuitive. But it turns out that what really excites us isn’t so much the loot itself. Sure, it’s nice. But what really drives us under these random reward conditions is the loot DROP. And actually if you want to put a finer point on it, it’s the ANTICIPATION of the loot drop. Let me try to explain why.

Humans are really good at pattern detection. As a result, we are sensitive to variations between what we expect to happen based on a pattern or belief, and what actually does happen. This is particularly true with unexpected pleasures, which by definition represent an error in our pattern detection capabilities. Surprises in this way are interesting. They’re attention-grabbing. They can be downright mesmerizing. As I write in the chapter on loot mechanics in my book, “Surprising pleasures, it turns out, are the most joyous of all.” (Madigan, 2015, pg 112). We’re just wired to pay attention to these kinds of things since, evolutionarily speaking, figuring out why a good thing happened and how to get more of it is very adaptive. 

This worked great in the natural world of our ancestors where truly random events were relatively rare. But systems like video games can actually create truly random events that capitalize on this quirk of our psychology. Randomly decide the loot players get after killing enemies or opening treasure chests and that core loot loop becomes very compelling. Soon the  most exciting part of playing the game isn’t necessarily getting the rewards, but it’s the sense of anticipation created by encountering the boss or hidden chest that contains them.

Image credit: SquakyFoo. You know who you are.

This is, I’m sure, what EA’s Kerry Hopkins was referring to when she told the UK Parliament’s committee that her company thought of loot boxes as “surprise mechanics.” Because loot boxes are basically treasure chests in all the examples I just described. But at the same time, she’s kind of willfully missing the point about how loot boxes differ from other sources of loot in games and why lawmakers are now interested in them. Loot boxes are often sold in ways that elite enemies in Diablo or hidden dungeon caches in Skyrim are not. The loot loop happens outside of the game for the most part. There are usually no limits on how many loot boxes you can buy and open one after the other, where treasure chests or bosses in Borderlands have to be found and traveled to –not to mention that they require actually playing the game. Some games have players buy loot boxes with virtual currencies that obfuscate the amount of real money being spent. In-game treasure chests do not.

So, yes “surprise mechanics” and “randomized content mechanics” have been a cherished part of video game design for decades. People enjoy surprises. But no, loot boxes and other randomized in-game purchases are not exactly the same thing. This is separate from the question of whether or not they’re ethical or problematic, and that’s the point: we should study and consider them separately from other kinds of loot mechanics.

If you want to watch the entirety of the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee hearing, you can do so here: https://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/0bf5f000-036e-4cee-be8e-c43c4a0879d4 The “surprise mechanics” discussion happens at around the 15 minute, 43 second mark. 


Madigan, J. (2015). Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People Who Play Them. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

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