New research shows a robust link between loot boxes and problem gambling

A new report shows a “robustly verified” link between problem gambling and in-game loot boxes. 

The boxes are a common feature of video games. They are treasure-chest type items that contain in-game bonuses, such as extra weapons or special powers. What they contain is a mystery until the player opens them. Players can get the boxes through different means, including buying them with real money.

The universities of Plymouth and Wolverhampton carried out research into loot boxes and found strong evidence that they are “structurally and psychologically akin to gambling”.

There are no laws in the UK governing the use of loot boxes in games. This is particularly troubling because the same research found that many children are opening them, which could lead to gambling problems as they get older.

The UK government is already looking into loot boxes and their relationship to gambling. This follows a 2017 House of Lords committee report into gambling where they argued that the boxes should be legislated as a form of gambling.

The report on loot boxes

GambleAware commissioned the latest research in order to establish the strength of the link between gambling and loot boxes.

The statistics

What they found is worrying:

An image that is just a purple background site colours) with two statistics on it that say "93 of children play video games" and "Of them, 40 open loot boxes". There is also our logo in the bottom right corner.

That’s a lot of potential for future gambling problems.

An infographic like the picture above with a purple background. This time the statistics are "5% of loot box buyers generate half of the revenue the industry makes from loot boxes" and "1 in 3 of this 5% can be classed as problem gamblers"

So of people that buy loot boxes, 5% are buying a disproportionate amount and account for half of all revenue made from the boxes. From that 5%, 1 in 3 has the characteristics of a problem gambler (e.g., impulsive spending, inability to control spending, agitation when they can’t buy more boxes, etc).

Men were more likely to buy boxes, and being younger and less educated correlated with higher rates of purchasing.

Nudging

Nudging is a psychological technique often used by marketers and sometimes governments to bring about desired behaviour from people. For example, the images on cigarette packets are nudging – they’re trying to psychologically trigger people to become afraid of smoking. That’s a positive nudge because it’s helping the person.

However, within the context of loot boxes, these nudges are designed to encourage people to buy more of them. They use things like limited-time offers to put pressure on the buyer. The idea is effectively, “buy now or miss out on all the fun”.

But some loot boxes are free?

Some of you might be confused as to how the boxes always constitute gambling when some of them are in-game bonuses and require no purchasing. The report shows that even in these circumstances, the boxes often have a “discrete financial” value nonetheless because many games allow players to exchange the contents with other players who may have purchased their own boxes.

What the study recommends

They argue that the boxes represent a real financial risk because it is the less financially well-off who appear to be most affected, and further, those at-risk individuals (e.g. problem gamblers, young people, etc) are disproportionately represented in box purchases.

Consequently, they argue that loot boxes require similar legislation to gambling. This will include things such as age verification for purchases, clear details about the risk of winning different items, and the introduction of spending limits.

A picture of gold bullion bars piled up on each other