Over the last decade, mystery boxes have been a fad that has reentered the cycle of popularity, but this time it looks like it’s here to stay.
The mystery behind mystery boxes
Mystery Boxes, sometimes called “Surprise Toys” or “Blind Bags,” are toys that people buy without knowledge of their contents. Regardless of the name it's being marketed under, concerned parents think the implications and dangers are all the same. Opponents of these items describe the toys as “gambling for children,” but where exactly is the line between a game of chance and a chance to game?
Disney and Lego are on board
The products typically all follow the same mechanic. They are usually inexpensive, ranging anywhere from $5 to $15 (for the basic versions) and are sometimes combined with an established intellectual property such as Disney or Lego.
Tamper Resistant Packaging and Plastic Eggs
The packaging is usually tamper-resistant and the contents are unidentifiable from the outside. Sometimes the toys are encased in hard plastic (more recently an egg) to add to the mysterious nature of the trinket. These purchases aren’t completely uninformed, however. The outside of the packaging often includes information such as what brand the toy belongs to, what edition of toy it is within that brand, and what pool of different characters or items could possibly be obtained in the singular pack.
Collect them All
These toys can either be decorative in nature or a part of a larger game with established rules. This leads to a need to collect more advantageous and rare game pieces. Those aspects further add to the popular tagline “Collect Them All!” that is used in advertisements for the product. The need to complete a collection of toys is what really fuels the fire. Without proper comprehension, a child might not understand that probability is the biggest factor in completing their collection.
Is it Gambling?
800-Gambler, a nonprofit based in New Jersey is dedicated to supporting people and their families who suffer from gambling addiction. They published a statement on Mystery Boxes, alleging toys like these introduce gambling to children at younger and younger ages and the link to increased chances of gambling addictions later in life. 800-Gambler also mentions how social media, specifically Youtube, has increased awareness, demand and excitement over the surprise toy phenomenon.
What’s in the box?
“Unboxing videos are a popular category on youtube, in which children, often under parental supervision, open new, trendy toys and offer their thoughts on the product. This ties in nicely with the Mystery Box gimmick, allowing all parties involved to witness something for the first time. Unboxing videos can be found as early as 2010 on Youtube, with the trend only growing exponentially since then.
One channel in particular has built an empire off of unboxing and Mystery Box videos, going so far as to receive their own line of toys called “Surprise Mystery Eggs” and other permutations of the trend. Ryan’s World, a YouTube account that boasts 26 million subscribers, has posted hundreds of videos, a good number of which feature these unboxing style videos. Along with other eight spinoff channels owned by Sunlight Entertainment, headed by Ryan Kaji’s parents, the company first started having Ryan conduct toy reviews around five years ago. Due to the success of not only Ryan’s but numerous other Youtube Channels, there is a very clear correlation that social media has propelled the Mystery/Unboxing trends so long, it has stayed in the mainstream.
ASAP Science video on mystery boxes, social media influencers, and gambling:
Baseball cards are out, mystery boxes are in
But one question that has been consistently asked by concerned parents since the trend began is the legality of the marketing strategy. In 1997, Upper Deck, the company famous for selling baseball cards, was sued in a class action lawsuit that alleged the practices the company was using to increase sales of the cards was akin to gambling.
Sued for contributing to child gambling addiction
From the lawsuit: “ The amended complaint alleges that the packaging and distribution of Upper Deck's sports and entertainment cards constitutes a gambling activity. Upper Deck manufactures cards, packages them in a sealed wrapping, and distributes them to retailers across the country. Each package contains a preset number of cards; however, the package does not disclose or describe the specific cards contained therein.” And again in 1999 concerned parents sued Nintendo of America, Inc. for similar reasons, These lawsuits have been dismissed, but the trend has not died in the slightest.
Perfect for Collectors
Mystery Box tactics have also proven to be profitable for dedicated collectors. In the Pokemon world, vintage and rare cards can fetch anywhere from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Virtual Loot Boxes
Despite having humble beginnings in the form of gold-wrapped baseball cards, the Mystery Box mechanic has invaded a variety of different avenues all with the same goal: to reach the most customers. When the trend inserted itself in the world of video games, countries around the world quickly stepped in and some have outright banned virtual Mystery or “Loot Boxes” as they are commonly known in that industry.
BBC Loot Box Debate - Healthy Gaming For Families after DCMS Report:
Not exactly the same as gambling
There are some key differences however between this marketing strategy and actual gambling. When purchasing a “Mini Brands Surprise Toy” or even one of Ryan’s surprise eggs, the customer is guaranteed a new toy. Whether or not they already have that specific toy is another story.
Farmer cuts up rare Woolworths Lion King ooshies on live TV:
Another difference is that as with nearly all instances of money, children cannot purchase these collectables without their parent’s help. Concerned parents might think these Mystery Boxes can send children the wrong message, shifting focus away from appreciating the toy they just received into the thrill of opening a previously undiscovered, uncollected game piece.
800-Gambler posted a short video that tells parents how to talk to their children about managing expectations and what to expect when they potentially ‘take a gamble.’