A new study with concerns about “problem gambling” habits has pushed for a closer look at loot boxes, the in-game rewards popular in online gaming.
Loot boxes typically contain something of value specific to the game—such as a new skill, accessory or weapon for a character—and can be either won or purchased. Over the years, games have become dependent on loot boxes as a source of revenue, and a black market has developed for loot boxes due to their value.
Now, a new study has raised concerns about the impact of loot boxes on gamers and suggested that oversight and even regulation may be necessary. Launched by an Australian parliamentary committee, the study was conducted by Dr. David Zendle of York St. John University and Dr. Paul Cairns of the University of York.
The professors recruited thousands of gamers from Reddit to ask questions about their playing habits, including spending, and found that loot boxes are indicative of a bigger problem. According to the report, gamers who tend toward “problem gambling” habits (defined as behavior or spending that negatively impacts everyday life and relationships) spent significantly more on loot boxes than average gamers did.
“We found that the more severe an individual’s problem gambling, the more they spent on loot boxes,” the professors wrote in their report summary. “The relationship we observed was neither trivial, nor unimportant. Indeed, the amount that gamers spent on loot boxes was a better predictor of their problem gambling than high-profile factors in the literature such as depression and drug abuse.”
The study recognized that the correlation could work in the opposite direction: that the problem could come first and that loot boxes are simply another way for established problem gamblers to spend money, or, as the professors wrote, the loot boxes could be “allowing game companies to exploit addictive disorders amongst their customers for profit.”
Whatever the explanation, the study stressed the need for additional research and action. “It is our opinion that loot boxes should be regulated,” Zendle said in a press release for York St. John University. “Our research suggests that loot boxes either literally cause problem gambling; or, alternatively, allow games companies to exploit serious gambling problems amongst their customers for massive monetary gain.”
The authors recommended that games with loot boxes be restricted to players of legal gambling age and that “[g]iven the severity of the link seen here, we also strongly recommend that relevant authorities restrict access to loot boxes as if they were a form of gambling.”
To read the study summary, click here.
Why it matters: Some countries are already taking a closer look at loot boxes. A group of 15 gambling authorities—including regulators in France, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the Washington State Gambling Commission—recently published a declaration of their intent to evaluate loot boxes, among other gaming issues. “We are increasingly concerned with the risks being posed by the blurring of lines between gambling and other forms of digital entertainment such as video gaming,” the regulators wrote. “Concerns in this area have manifested themselves in controversies relating to skin betting, loot boxes, social casino gambling and the use of gambling themed content within video games available to children. We commit ourselves today to working together to thoroughly analyse the characteristics of video games and social gaming. This common action will enable an informed dialogue with the video games and social gaming industries to ensure the appropriate and efficient implementation of our national laws and regulations. We anticipate that it will be in the interest of these companies whose platforms or games are prompting concern, to engage with gambling regulatory authorities to develop possible solutions.”