An Australian Senate inquiry into the potential harm caused by video gaming loot boxes has found “important links” between loot box spending and problem gambling and that the in-game purchase of loot boxes was psychologically akin to gambling.
The inquiry, titled “Gaming micro-transactions for chance-based items”, looked into whether the purchase of loot boxes and the subsequent ability to monetize their contents constitutes a form of gambling.
Loot boxes are essentially mystery prizes, or boxes, that can be either awarded to players during play or purchased at any time in-game. Their contents, ranging from new avatar options to special armour or weapon “skins”, can then be monetized by trading or selling to other players. However, the value of items contained within a loot box can vary significantly and is essentially a game of chance with no way for players to know the contents of a loot box until they have acquired it.
According to the inquiry, which saw lead investigators Dr David Zendle and Dr Paul Cairns examine 7,422 people, there is an undeniable link between loot boxes and problem gambling, with the duo finding that, “The more severe gamers’ problem gambling was, the more likely they were to spend large amounts of money on loot boxes.”
They also found that there is a serious risk for loot boxes to cause gambling-related harm, that loot boxes act as a gateway to problem gambling amongst gamers and that loot boxes provide games companies with an unregulated way of exploiting gambling disorders amongst their customers.
“Industry statements typically disassociate loot boxes from gambling,” the inquiry’s report reads. “They instead highlight similarities between loot boxes and harmless products like trading cards or Kinder Surprise eggs.
“By contrast, researchers argue that loot boxes share so many formal similarities with other forms of gambling that they meet the ‘psychological criteria’ to be considered gambling themselves. These researchers further suggest that buying loot boxes may therefore lead to problem gambling amongst gamers.
“These results support the position of academics who claim that loot boxes are psychologically akin to gambling. Spending large amounts of money on loot boxes was associated with problematic levels of spending on other forms of gambling. This is what one would expect if loot boxes psychologically constituted a form of gambling. It is not what one would expect if loot boxes were, instead, psychologically comparable to baseball cards.”
The inquiry recommended that games containing loot boxes should carry parental advisories, indicate the presence of gambling content and potentially be restricted to players of legal gambling age.