Psychologists Argue Loot Boxes In Some Games Are ‘Akin To Gambling’

Psychologists Argue Loot Boxes In Some Games Are ‘Akin To Gambling’

A comment paper published in Nature Human Behaviour argues that loot boxes in some video games, including Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, FIFA 18, Halo Wars 2 and For Honor, can “meet the structural and psychological criteria for gambling”.

Massey University’s Aaron Drummond and University of Tasmania’s James Sauer conducted an analysis of 22 games over the past couple of years that featured loot boxes, ranging from shooters like PUBG and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare to more casual titles with less competitive offerings like Need for Speed: Payback. The games were then measured against the definition of gambling outlined by British psychologist Mark D. Griffiths, which lays out five criteria for distinguishing gambling from other measures:

  • The exchange of money or valuable goods;
  • An unknown future event determines the exchange;
  • Chance at least partly determines the outcome;
  • Non-participation can avoid incurring losses;
  • Winners gain at the sole expense of losers.


“We decided to consider [the final] criteria satisfied if players were able to gain some form of competitive advantage over other players (so when Loot Boxes yielded functional rewards rather than just cosmetic rewards),” Dr Drummond explained to Kotaku Australia over email.

A sixth criteria – whether the items obtained in-game could be converted into real world money – was also considered.

The 10 games that fit the authors’ criteria for gambling, psychologically and structurally, were as follows: Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, Fifa 17, Fifa 18, For Honor, Halo Wars 2, Madden NFL 17, Madden NFL 18, Need for Speed Payback, Assassins Creed Origins and Mass Effect Andromeda.

The last two games are a little quixotic, in that Origins is a singleplayer game and Andromeda‘s multiplayer being a co-operative experience that has little to no impact on singleplayer progression.

According to Dr Drummond, Origins and Andromeda fit the criteria because in-game purchases still allowed players to increase their in-game power relative to others, even if they are not directly competing. “I would argue that there is still a form of competition being encouraged between players and loot box rewards can provide players with the ability to score higher than other players,” Dr Drummond explained.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is similar in that it is cooperative only, but again it does mean that some players will have more powerful characters, and we know that even when cooperating, social comparisons mean that we want what other people have.”

The comment paper was originally written in December. At that time, Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Star Wars: Battlefront 2 were also classed as fitting the authors’ criteria, although after microtransactions were removed from both games they were dropped from consideration.

The purpose of the paper is to encourage a “reasoned, sensible, evidence-based discussion about ethical and sustainable practice” around monetisation models. “As we’ve tried to point out, there seems to be an important difference between those that meet all the psychological criteria for gambling and can be cashed out, those that can’t be cashed out but meet the psychological criteria for gambling, and those that neither meet the psychological criteria for gambling nor can be cashed out,” Dr Drummond said.

Dr Drummond and Dr Sauer were concerned by two facets in particular: the ability to on-sell items for money, as has been seen in CS:GO and PUBG, and the use of a “variable ratio reinforcement schedule”.

“This is where, on average, someone will be rewarded with a high value reward on average after a given number of openings of a loot box,” Dr Drummond explained. “Variable ratio reinforcement is one of the most powerful behavioural learning schedules – it results in people acquiring new behaviours swiftly and repeating them often in the hopes of a reward. We’ve known about these schedules and their power for around 60 years, but their adaptation to the video game environment is arguably relatively new, and the rise in the practice of using loot boxes which employ these schedules has grown rapidly in the last 2 years.”

Dr Drummond emphasised that they weren’t looking to spark a panic or outrage, but a more nuanced conversation about how loot boxes are used. He added that a useful step forward could be the addition of loot box mechanics into parental advice ratings, like those issued by the Classification Board or ESRB overseas on retail boxes.

“The aim shouldn’t be to stigmatise the games, but to provide consumers and parents with information that allows them to make the best decision for themselves or their children.”

The full comment paper can be read over at Nature.


  • Dr Drummond emphasised that they weren’t looking to spark a panic or outrage, but a more nuanced conversation about how loot boxes are used.

    Every researcher ever publishing anything that they know will be misinterpreted.

  • If cosmetic loot box items could be exchanged between players than yeah it would be gambling, but if they are locked to a single account than they lose there value and nothing is really gained other than a rarer looking skin.

    When it comes to loot boxes that can provide a boost to power or something though I think it is straight up gambling as you are gaining a real advantage.

    • Sooner or later someone will argue that theres no difference. Those cosmetic items have social status, so create an elitist attitude of haves and have-nots. By extension, that falls into the psychology of gambling that the research covers.

      I’m sure I’ve seen reports of kids racking up hundreds of dollars on mum or dads credit card, just to get the latest Fortnite skin. If not Fortnite, its definitely happened in other games. Which has the fingerprints of gambling all over it, regardless of whether the reward can be sold or not.

    • From a legal standpoint, it’s questionable whether cosmetic loot boxes are gambling but from a general definition it is most definitely gambling. You are staking money in a game of chance for something of value. It doesn’t necessarily need to be monetary value but as long as you want it, it has some kind of value to you and if you keep spending money until luck falls in your favour then you are, by definition, gambling on it.

      It’s semantics, but at the end of the day people are willing to spend money for what they want and it’s a more attractive proposition to companies to have people spend an indefinite amount of cash on a chance outcome than a fixed value for something definite.

  • There is a quack joke in here about walks like a duck, sounds like a duck… is a duck?

    The game mechanic that lifted the design mechanics from the slot machine industry which is already well documented psychologically… its more surprising poker machine companies are not suing them for copyright. (Poker machine companies sue each other often over design that its not uncommon)

    • Not sure the concept of gambling would be copywritten. The visuals would, like features being similar, but the psychology wouldn’t.

      I wonder where the line will eventually be drawn. When will someone move the argument so those other duck-looking issues get targeted? Buying lootboxes for cosmetic rewards still has the gambling psychology behind it (the reward for a rare reward is social status), but if you start going down that path, a lot of games have it built in.

      WoW has random rewards from raids, and you pay a subscription. Is that gambling? Destiny 2 has its Eververse store, what about that? Hell, Super Mario 3 has a random slot machine mechanic in it, should that be retro-banned?

      At least this research isn’t sensationalising the issue like so many other editorials have.

      • Eververse is classic gambling and lootbox bullshit

        How is it even a question? Plus you arent paying for the random rewards in WoW
        But you are for the fucking lootboxes in destiny

        Raid rewards are rewards for GAMEPLAY, not shelling out for a lootbox
        Theres a big difference in being psychologically exploitative there

        In one its a gameplay mechanic to make yhe game more fun so you play the game, in another its a direct cash grab you arent DOING anything when you just purchase a lootbox

        • This is what I mean though. Right now, the Eververse type lootboxes seem to be fine. Nobody is boycotting Destiny 2 because of them (theres enough other reasons to), because the rewards arent game changing. It seems right NOW the argument is against pay to win, not just the gambling itself.

          As soon as someone turns to the gambling itself, Eververse stuff gets targetted. Is that right, or wrong? If its wrong, how far do you go in shutting down gambling. And why didnt gamers make an issue about it last year? Why did they wait a month for Battlefield 2? Its the same type of gamer playing both.

          At one end, you have Eververse stuff, which I agree is clearly gambling, but at the other end, WoW has costs with monthly subscriptions, so legally there may be little difference.

          I work with legislation, and its amazing how far laws can extend. So often laws get taken way beyond their intent, and with this sort of thing the combo of money and randomised rewards could apply to a massive range of games. WoW has a subscription fee, so theres the money angle the wowsers can use.

          I’m not saying its right, I have no problem with lootboxes for cosmetic rewards (pay to win sucks though), but there are risks here with how they try to fix it.

  • Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, Fifa 17, Fifa 18, For Honor, Halo Wars 2, Madden NFL 17, Madden NFL 18, Need for Speed Payback, Assassins Creed Origins and Mass Effect Andromeda

    Oh hai EA. What’s that, 6/10?

    • Absolutely. The question is, will there be enough evidence to take it to court and push for gambling laws to be applied to it?

  • Overall, I’ve spent about a thousand dollars in SWTOR on its lootboxes back in the day…

    Compared to probably at most 100/150 dollars on SWTOR’s sub.

    Yeah, lootboxes are quite bad.

  • Lootboxes as a concept aren’t totally terrible. Random drops in a game aren’t so different from buying vendor boxes that give random drops. diablo gives you randomised rewards. So does Borderlands. That gameplay loop can be fun and exciting.

    The issue is using it as a hook to pull more and more money from users and making them feel compelled.

    • Right?

      Manipulation to make the player play more of the game? Good.
      Manipulation to make the player enter their credit card? Bad.

      It’s a pretty bloody clear and easy-to-read line.

  • here some hard hitting reseach think of loot box as one of those spinning weels where you win a random thing, in a cas this is called gambling in a game this called a loot box…same fucking thing.

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