Loot boxes in video games linked with problem gambling
New research by the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Plymouth has found a strong link between problem gambling symptoms and loot box expenditure, while finding no link between expenditure and earnings.
The research was commissioned by GambleAware to see if there were any links between purchasing in-game items (such as loot boxes) and problem gambling, along with the psychological profiles of young people and adults who buy loot boxes, their motivations for purchasing, and any potential harms they may experience.
Loot boxes are purchasable features in video games that give randomised rewards. Due to their similarities with gambling, there are fears that loot box purchasing may be associated with problematic gambling. At the end of 2020, the UK loot box market was estimated to be worth £700m.
Dr Joanne Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, said: “One of the aims of the project was to see if high spending players, known as ‘whales’, are simply high-earning individuals, or if they are more likely to be at-risk individuals, such as problem gamblers.”
The team analysed self-reported spend data from 7,771 loot box purchasers, and found that while for many players, monthly expenditure on loot boxes is modest (less than $20), the distribution is highly skewed. Around five per cent of the gamers in the sample were high-level spenders, or ‘whales’, spending more than $100 per month, who likely accounted for over half of the loot box revenue.
Despite the industry’s claims that these gamers are typically high-earners, the researchers found that there was a lack of relationship between loot box expenditure and annual earnings.
Dr Lloyd said: “We found that high-spending ‘whales’ do not have higher earnings.
“In addition, around a third of them are classified as problem gamblers. We saw a strong correlation between the gamers falling into the ‘problem gambling’ category and loot box expenditure; even stronger than relationships between problem gambling and well-established co-morbidities, including depression and drug misuse.
“Therefore our study suggests that games developers, unwittingly or not, are disproportionately profiting from moderate and high-risk gamblers, rather than high earning customers.
“Such patterns of spending mirror those observed with gambling revenues, and have implications for harm minimisation and ongoing policy debates around loot boxes.”
The researchers published their study in the journal ‘Addictive Behaviours’ and partly forms the basis of a policy-focused white paper report. Additional insights from the wider programme of work will be published in the near future.
Based on the findings, the researchers have suggested a number of policies to prevent gambling harms associated with loot boxes:
- Clear definitions of loot boxes
- Game labelling and enforceable age ratings
- Full disclosure of odds presented in an easily understood manner
- Spending limits and prices shown in real currency
- These changes could be instated via new regulations or changes to existing gambling laws.
Zoë Osmond, CEO of GambleAware, said: “This research is part of GambleAware’s continued commitment to protect children, adolescents and young people from gambling harms.
“The research has revealed that a high number of children who play video games also purchase loot boxes and we are increasingly concerned that gambling is now part of everyday life for children and young people.
“GambleAware funded this research to highlight concerns around loot boxes and problem gambling, ahead of the upcoming Gambling Act Review.
“It is now for politicians to review this research, as well as the evidence of other organisations, and decide what legislative and regulatory changes are needed to address these concerns.”
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