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From subscription packs to in-game loot crates, why are we so obsessed with mystery boxes?

By Malavika Pradeep

Feb 6, 2022

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“iPhone or mystery box?” a popular YouTuber is heard asking random people on the street. In one hand he holds a brand new iPhone 13 Pro Max, while the other struggles to prop up a cardboard box with a sketchily-scribbled question mark. If you’re one among the millions who have stumbled across such videos, you’ll know how they typically end. The person in question always picks the mystery box, even if the YouTuber keeps offering iPads and MacBooks against the decision.

The result? The mystery box would almost always reveal flowers, flamingo plushies and lollipop guns—all worth less than an iPhone in monetary value. Only in rare cases have people taken $300 worth sunglasses home after the public challenge. Nevertheless, the audience always seems to be happy with whatever they end up getting. Something is better than nothing, right?

However, in the rare cases where people choose the iPhone, the mystery box reveals stacks of other Apple products and gaming laptops—with baby Justin Bieber singing “let me show you what you’re missin’, paradise” in the background. FOMO-based engagement. It can’t be ruled out that these videos are staged. But even if they are, why are mystery boxes portrayed as the more appealing option out of the two? And why does everyone in the comment section agree with this trope by stating variations of “I’d still choose the box over an iPhone any day”?

Simply put, what makes the concept of mystery boxes so appealing to us? Can our taste for those turn into an ‘addiction’? If so, will our curiosity cost us in the long run? To answer all of these burning questions, SCREENSHOT interviewed several experts in the field to get a broader perspective on the phenomenon.

The tangible appeal

Let’s start with the type of mystery boxes delivering physical goods to our doorstep, shall we? Mostly available for purchase online, these boxes contain a collection of items that are unknown to the buyer until they’re opened. Sure, some sellers provide sneak-peeks and give you some control over deciding what goes into the package, but the exact contents remain a mystery until they’re unboxed

In terms of the content in question, up until a few years ago, mystery boxes were dominated by fandoms and gamers. Given how their entire concept stems from gamer culture, sellers could essentially capitalise on interests and capture “Comic-Con in a box” for fans. This level of exclusiveness, however, led to the counter-growth of companies perceiving the service as a chance to host and drop new releases in literally everything from technology and gadgets to beauty, fashion and entertainment. As of today, there’s something for everyone—no matter what your age, preferences or interests.

For starters, you can either sign up for mystery box subscriptions that deliver packages once or twice every month or choose to order them off Amazon, Etsy or eBay as a one-time purchase.

When it comes to subscription-based boxes, the contents are usually hinged on a common theme. For example, Instagram-famous Hunt A Killer offers true-crime-style cases one can solve over a course of six months. With every package—or ‘episodes’, as the account calls it—comes more clues as you inch closer to cracking the case. “You can cancel any time,” Hunt A Killer writes on its website. “But fair warning: It’s addictive! Once you start, you too will eagerly wait for your box each and every month to keep the tale alive.”

In the case of one-time purchases, Amazon and Etsy are your go-tos. While the former lists official merchandise, Pokémon trading cards, Funko POP! bobbleheads as well as book and beauty bundles, the latter features jewellery, bath bombs, art supplies, Kpop photocards and even boxes dedicated to various internet aesthetics and subcultures like cottagecore and dark academia.

For Sam Birch, mystery boxes initially manifested as a healthy lifestyle subscription bundle with curated vegan snacks, vitamins and recipe cards for university students. “Around a year ago, I decided to launch a new box that I had a more vested interest in and created Smugglers Crate—a monthly mystery box for Star Wars fans which I sell through my own website and Etsy shop,” he told SCREENSHOT.

Featuring artwork, clothing, figures, mugs, keyrings and other memorabilia, Smugglers Crate is available in five types of plans that one can choose from: one-off crates, monthly crates, three-month prepaid crates and gift boxes. Apart from the Star Wars box, Birch also lists Thor Crate (dedicated to Marvel fans), Pokébox (curated for Pokémon enthusiasts) and Geek Crate (mystery box containing a mixture of gear from all of the fandoms mentioned above). “The Marvel box is still quite new but the Star Wars one is definitely the most popular,” Birch said.

The process of ordering Smugglers Crate goes something like this: choose your preferred plan out of the five—if you’re signing up for the monthly subscription crates, then your card would be charged on the day you purchase the first box and billed again on the 1st of every month until you cancel. After receiving your orders, Birch’s team starts the curation process to find exciting products every month.

“I source stock each month so the contents change on a monthly basis,” the seller explained on these terms. “I don’t want anyone who’s subscribed to receive a duplicate item from the previous crate.” Although there are set boxes for new customers, one or two items may be switched around from time to time.

When asked about the audience Birch has assembled, he categorised them into two types: diehard fans who love collecting merchandise and those looking to gift a crate full of surprises to their friends and family. “Diehard fans see the boxes as a way of collecting new memorabilia they may not have and to celebrate their love of the fandom on a monthly basis,” Birch explained. “While other people, especially on Etsy, see the box as a great gifting opportunity.”

Despite the differences in their purpose, however, both customers stand united in terms of one factor: feasibility. “Buying five to six independent Star Wars or Marvel items would be significantly more expensive to purchase as an individual—as they’d have to pay postage on each item and wouldn’t have access to the wholesale rates we purchase them for,” Birch continued, adding how—in the case of mystery boxes—buyers end up getting a crate full of items worth much more than what they paid for.

At the end of the day, Birch also acknowledged an overwhelmingly positive response from his customers. “Of course, some people will feel underwhelmed if they haven’t received an item from their favourite film or character but most people feel they’re getting great value for their money,” he admitted.

Hybe and the art of ‘virtual’ unboxing

Let’s be honest here. The physical appeal of mystery boxes is mostly justified on its own: grab yours online, keep refreshing the updates on your order and check your doorstep ever-so-often for a box full of excitement—all triggered by the common element of uncertainty. But what if this process could be shortened to give you even more frequent bursts of thrill?

That’s where platforms like Hybe and Lootie come in. While physical mystery boxes can be ordered, delivered and unboxed like everything else you buy off e-commerce websites, virtual boxes available on Hybe and Lootie can be opened directly online. Don’t like what you received? Don’t worry, you can choose to exchange it and proceed with shipment only if you’re happy with the content line-up you’ve got. “All the classic components of mystery boxes are there, but [we] work much more intuitively and dynamically, giving you more control and confidence than ever before,” Hybe justifies on its website.

But how do these platforms actually operate? How is the randomness achieved? And if the companies are in charge of the algorithm behind it all, won’t they have the ultimate autonomy of deciding who wins what?

Black box algorithms were a common practice in the gaming industry until recently. With the aim of generating randomised data, the information fed into and generated out of the algorithm can essentially be viewed and analysed by anyone. However, the exact blueprint of how it works remains with the company in question. Adjustments favouring the corporation can be made to the algorithm without the end-user knowing—leaving them with no choice but to believe the company’s baseless claims of honesty.

Hybe, on the other hand, details that its selection process is “truly fair” with user-focused safeguards in place to protect the buyer’s chances of bagging the jackpot. “The selection process has been fully documented, is totally transparent and cannot be tampered with—by anyone or for any reason,” the website reads. “With the evolution in the technology behind random generators, the mystery box experience is now defined by the user, not the company.”

In order to ‘hybe’ your way into mystery boxes, all you have to do is create an account and top up your balance. Once you’ve added the necessary credits, you can start browsing boxes that are either dedicated to a category (sneakers, gadgets, bags, belts and more) or a particular brand (Supreme, Off-White, Yeezy and KAWS among others). After zeroing in on a bundle, you can unbox it with just a click and either choose to ship the item you’ve received to your doorstep or sell it back to Hybe in exchange for store credits… which you can use to buy another mystery box and so on and so forth. Sounds dreamy, right?

A quick scroll through YouTube for the keyword ‘Hybe mystery box’, however, suggests otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, there are loads of videos documenting experiences of people winning $1,000,000-worth boxes. But on a closer look, you’ll realise how most of them are—drum roll, please—sponsored. “Use my code for some EXTRA good luck,” the descriptions read, prompting viewers to then claim free boxes using an affiliate link.

In fact, it turns out that you can’t even make a profit out of purchasing such boxes. Unless you’ve been hoarding your luck for the past ten years, that is. Let’s take the case of $1 mystery boxes on Hybe. Before unboxing, you’ll be redirected to a screen listing all the potential items you can receive in the bundle. Here, the outcomes range between $2,500 Nike Blazer Mids to $1.36 ankle socks. The possibilities of getting these, on the other hand, are 0.00027 per cent and 22.148 per cent respectively. You know where I’m going with this.

Let’s say you ended up with the pair of socks and you want to ship it to your house. You spent $1 and got $1.36 worth of socks, right? Enter hefty shipping fees. I can’t even begin to imagine the charges if I were to ship one all the way here to India. Now, let’s imagine you saved a country in your previous life and ended up with the $2,500 Nike trainers. Enter hefty shipping fees, again. Which one do you think would be cheaper: ordering Nike shoes off a mystery box platform or purchasing one from its official website or physical outlet?

The tightrope between curiosity and obsession

Even if you feel finessed with your purchase, the appeal of virtual mystery boxes is clear as day. Externally, Hybe gamifies the entire unboxing experience like that of opening treasure chests at the bottom of the ocean. The autonomy of either choosing to ship or exchange the item for store credits also helps hook users to some extent. Although I hate to admit it, the disappointment of receiving low valued items further feeds into the narrative.

“Next one’s the one,” you’ll be heard consoling yourself as you top up your balance, open more boxes and exchange them for store credits—only to open even more boxes. But all of this is mere tertiary knowledge. Is there anyone who’s actually hooked onto such websites? If so, how did they tumble down the rabbit hole? And, most importantly, can this phenomenon be termed an ‘addiction’ similar to gambling and lottery tickets?

In my chat with Theodore, the enthusiast acknowledged dipping his toes into mystery boxes back in 2020. “I usually shop on Hybe, as I’ve heard others are quite sketchy,” he said. Having purchased 76 boxes to date, the major motivation for Theodore lies in the feasibility of the concept. “Normally, it’s just the ability to win something cool. When I pay less, then the value of the item goes up.” In terms of the said value, Theodore has previously received an Xbox controller worth $60. At the time, however, he’d chosen to exchange it for store credit.

When asked if he’d ever been scammed on Hybe, Theodore denied all allegations. “Nor has my email or credit card number been used [illegally],” he continued, adding how he’s not hooked onto mystery boxes and doesn’t have any specific urge to open them. “I do know someone who’s addicted to mystery boxes and buys a large amount every few weeks—for food, items and clothing,” he admitted.

One such “self-declared hybeast” is 19-year-old Max. “I open almost 20 boxes every day, mostly gadgets and sneakers,” he said. As of 2021, the biggest mystery box achievement for Max has been a $900 pair of Nike Air Jordan 12 Retro PSNY ‘Bordeaux’. “I remember paying a lot for shipping it to Australia. But it was the rarest unboxing I’d done and I wanted to keep it.”

As for the rest of the items Max decides to ship, he lists them on eBay in hopes of making a profit. “Mostly, I just sell them close to the amount I paid for the box plus its shipping cost. I’m not really making anything from this side hustle.” So why does he do it in the first place, you ask? “The unboxing, the thrill of it. I’m addicted and I know it, and so does my family.” He then went on to describe the feeling as a “dopamine rush” every time he slides his cursor up to open virtual boxes on platforms like Hybe. “There’s a Discord server just for us Hybe freaks, where I know some people who open up to 50 boxes every day on different websites.” Say what?

In order to get more insights, I circled back to Birch and his physical mystery crates. Is the situation similar on that front as well? “Some people have been subscribed since the month we launched, so there have been some very loyal customers,” he started. “I feel like people could potentially get addicted, but in the same way people get hooked to buying trading card packs, NFT releases or loot boxes in video games—where the chance of getting a ‘rare’ or ‘high value’ [item] is completely random and, in most cases, very small.”

At the same time, Birch outlined how buyers of most physical mystery boxes are guaranteed a certain value in each bundle and roughly know the types of products they’ll receive. “In our case, for example, we list the type of items included in our description and show pictures of past or current boxes—so people can get an idea of what to expect,” he added.

The psychological conversation

Now that we’ve gathered insights from both buyers and sellers, it’s time to get some experts to weigh into the psychological side of the conversation. To understand the mental metrics of mystery boxes, let’s first backtrack to the concept of gaming loot boxes.

“At its core, in-game loot boxes are items that can be paid for using real-world money or time within the game,” Brad Marshall, an internet, screen and gaming addiction expert—also known as ‘The Unplugged Psychologist’ across social media—told SCREENSHOT. “The items of ‘loot boxes’ have varying names in each game but all essentially function to give the player randomised contents as part of the transaction. These contents can be helpful to a player in the game or purely cosmetic.”

If you’ve ever played PUBG, visualise the iconic red and blue crate filled with random equipment dropped from aeroplanes. Once the crate lands in an open field, everyone scrambles towards it—turning the area dangerous for ill-equipped players and a feeding ground for those who are already well-equipped. In-game loot boxes can also be bought with gaming currency and sometimes be traded among players in exchange for some real bucks. “This last point is key,” noted Doctor Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist, award-winning author and science content creator.

When I queried both the experts about the addictiveness fostered by loot boxes, they highlighted how the industry does not prefer the term ‘addictive’ to refer to the concept. According to Marshall, developers usually incorporate gambling techniques for “better player engagement” and to make games more “sticky.”

“If we put loot boxes aside and talk about game design in general, one core technique many games borrow from gambling is the ‘Near Miss Effect’—sometimes known as the ‘Fun Failure Effect’,” he explained. “Basically, this refers to the idea where you can get so close to achieving a goal or ‘winning’ but fall just short. The game sets off the dopamine receptors (with the aid of visual and sound cues) for the player to experience a ‘high’, despite not actually winning or achieving that task.” Sounds like Project Makeover’s toxic advertising strategy, am I right?

Doctor Kowert additionally redirected me to a video where she has explored gaming addiction as put forth by the World Health Organization and discussed by the American Psychiatric Association:

“I think loot boxes are incorporated for monetisation,” Doctor Kowert explained, highlighting how the boxes are designed to be enticing but are additive, not integral, for player engagement. “Everything about their design is meant to be desirable—they are colourful, fun, make funny sounds and confetti may fly when you open them. They also run on the idea of intermittent reinforcement or variable rewards, which is a psychological mechanism that is known to increase engagement.”

So have these concepts actually proven successful? If yes, then what’s the level of increased engagement we’re looking at? Marshall agreed to the claims by outlining how the gaming industry is estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year. “A large part of this is its popularity but that is, in my opinion, inextricably linked to the ‘addictive’ game design,” he said.

Now onto the elephant in the room. As the director of the Internet Addiction Clinic at Northshore Kidspace, has Marshall ever come across gamers who are obsessed with loot boxes? “Yes, I routinely see children and teenagers who are hooked on loot boxes and micro transactions. It’s not uncommon in my clinic to meet children as young as six to nine years old who have spent hundreds of dollars on their parents’ credit cards,” the expert confirmed.

In Marshall’s experience, the demographic initially deny knowing what they’re up to, “but when you unpack it with them, they typically tell a story of understanding their purchase and not being able to stop themselves from going back for more.”

In 19-year-old Max’s case, the appeal lies in gamified virtual unboxings. “I’m not interested in things that have a fixed result, the unpredictability of mystery boxes is what keeps me going,” he admitted. So are there any long-term effects of such a phenomenon? Will virtual unboxings motivate one to take monetary risks in their real life too?

“With specific reference to video game loot boxes, yes. I do think they can be addictive. Especially for children and teenagers who have underdeveloped areas of the brain responsible for emotional and impulse control (prefrontal cortex and amygdala etc),” Marshall noted. According to the expert, however, the long term effects of this obsession are “grossly understudied”—given the lack of longitudinal research in the area. “But the short to medium term effects on a small cohort of kids, for example: one to three per cent in Australia, are significant,” he concluded.

When it comes to physical mystery boxes, Marshall believes the concept is a simple play on the ‘Christmas gift’ idea. “Anything wrapped up has an air of excitement about it, so I can see the appeal for anyone seeking a sense of excitement in their life,” he said. The expert further acknowledged the presence of famous YouTubers and bloggers who post unboxing videos in order to expand their fanbase and make more money with sponsored deals. “So in that sense, it would be easy to see how those ‘average’ Joes would see a video like that and want to give it a try.”

A tale of downward spirals

In my chat with Max, the “hybeast” admitted how he’s previously tried to curb his urges, but only ended up buying even more to compensate for the unboxing-induced dopamine. In one of my questions, I’d also included the popular idiom “will curiosity kill the cat?” Max rephrased it and told me the right question, in this context, would be to ask: “will curiosity kill the cat financially?”

“My bank balance has taken a hit ever since I started purchasing mystery boxes and I’ve even borrowed cash from my family”

As for Theodore, he advises people who have an unhealthy relationship with unboxings to cut off all communication and emails with the websites or online vendors—given how they would use all means necessary to encourage you to keep purchasing more bundles. “Just buy things straight if you want them,” he added.

From his experience, Marshall recommends the involvement of parents in the process, especially when it comes to children and teens looking to set appropriate boundaries and limit their use. “Now, this doesn’t mean no technology or screen time—as that’s likely detrimental to health and too far the other way,” he warned, instead suggesting simple steps like limiting the amount of use and unlinking credit cards with gaming accounts.

For older demographics, this road is slightly different. “I believe adults should be free to spend their money how they deem fit. However, if they are struggling, it would be around similar exclusion and limits they place on themselves and get family or friends to help,” Marshall said. Here’s an example given by the expert: if there’s a game on your phone that you spend hours on, apart from all the mindless scrolling on TikTok, start by locking yourself out of the app and giving the passcode to a friend you trust.

“This is not fool-proof but it’ll help you add a layer of protection, in case you’re feeling the urge to log on and spend money,” Marshall explained.

Now that we’ve listed tips on pulling ourselves from the spiral, one question remains: Is it possible to have a healthy relationship with both mystery and loot boxes in the first place? Marshall highlighted how these concepts are pretty similar to betting on a sport or horse race. “It’s a game of chance with varying rewards. So, I do think it’s possible for adults to spend ‘within their means’ if that brings them enjoyment.” That being said, the expert condones children and teenagers being targeted or even permitted to purchase such boxes. “Fundamentally, that’s where we must work towards [and establish] reasonable safeguards in many countries that still resist this.”

So if you believe you’re engaging in any sort of behaviour that is causing physical, social or psychological harm to yourself or others, Doctor Kowert advises seeking professional aid. “To help get you started, there are many mental health resources available at www.takethis.org,” she summed up.

On the other hand, if you believe your relationship with mystery boxes are healthy and controlled, I suggest sticking to the physical ones rather than purchasing them off virtual spaces which can shrink the entire experience in the name of convenience. And if a vendor looks sketchy before you commit, Birch has some suggestions for you: “My advice would be to avoid purchasing one that doesn’t show you examples of past boxes or has no reviews, as this will likely be a scam.”

In the end, it’s worth remembering that you get to decide how you want to enjoy a mystery box. And the answer to the ‘addictive’ narrative of these items would always depend on who you’re asking.