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People with known problem gaming, gambling problems and gambling related thinking are more likely to engage with video game 'loot boxes'

Published: 02 January 2024

A large study into the thoughts and behaviours of video gamers, supported by NIHR Applied Research Collaboration South West Peninsula (PenARC), has shown in-game purchasing of randomised rewards is similar to gambling.   

A "loot box" is a container with a selection of things inside that can be used when playing a computer game. You can buy loot boxes with real or game currency, and you do not usually know what is inside until you open it.

The study captured the thoughts of: 

  • 1,495 gamers who buy loot boxes
  • 1,223 gamers who do not buy loot boxes but do buy other in-game content 

The results suggest that strong relationships exist between high loot box engagement and other potentially risky activities, such as problem video gaming and gambling-related thinking.

Impulsivity and gambling-related thinking includes: 

  • an illusion of control
  • a perceived inability to stop gambling
  • a tendency to disregard the statistical odds of winning and attribute wins to luck, skill or another external event  

It is possible these thoughts may drive risky behaviours in both gambling and loot boxes.

No association between income and loot box engagement

Research has previously shown that the top 5% of spenders on loot boxes represent half of loot box revenue. The latest research showed there was no significant correlation between loot box spend and earnings. Taken together, this suggests that games developers are profiting from at-risk groups such as moderate and high-risk gamblers.

Protecting children

The researchers previously looked at children’s use of loot boxes. They found that:  

  • 93% of children in the UK play video games
  • 40% of these have opened loot boxes

An earlier paper from the same study also found evidence that under-18s who engaged with loot boxes progressed onto other forms of gambling.

Loot boxes are not governed by gambling laws and are accessible to children. Based on all these findings the researchers suggested that policies should be developed around:

  • Clear definitions of loot boxes
  • Game labelling and enforceable age ratings
  • Full disclosure of odds presented in a simple way
  • Spending limits and prices shown in real currency

New regulations or changes to existing gambling laws would be required. The researchers said that more research is needed to establish whether loot box use drives gambling.

Dr James Close, Lecturer in Clinical Education at the University of Plymouth, said: “With the risk/reward mindset and behaviours associated with accessing loot boxes, we know there are similarities with gambling, and these new papers provide a longer, more robust description exploring the complexities of the issue.”

Co-lead Dr Stuart Spicer, NIHR PenARC Research Fellow in the University of Plymouth’s Peninsula Medical School, added: “We know loot boxes have attracted a lot of controversy and the UK Government has adopted an approach of industry self-regulation. However, industry compliance to safety features is currently unsatisfactory, and there is a pressing need to see tangible results. Our research adds to the evidence base that they pose a problem for at-risk groups, such as people with dysfunctional thoughts about gambling, lower income, and problematic levels of video gaming.     

“We really hope that these findings will add to the evidence base showing the link between loot boxes, gambling and other risky behaviours, and that there will be more of a push to take action and minimise harm.”

The research was funded by Gamble Aware, an independent charity that funds research to reduce the harm of gambling. It was completed by the Universities of Plymouth and Wolverhampton, and supported by PenARC

The papers exploring the relationships between psychological variables and loot box engagement, part 1: pre-registered hypotheses on 20 December 2023 and Exploring the relationships between psychological variables and loot box engagement, part 2: exploratory analyses of complex relationships on 2 January 2024 were published in Royal Society Open Science.

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