The alarm bells into the relationship between loot boxes and the potential for problem gambling have been sounded more strongly, with a new study warning that loot boxes can cause problem gaming among teenagers and that “adolescent problem gamblers spent more than five times as much money on loot boxes”.
The study was published in the July issue of Royal Society Open Science, and comes from Harriet Over, Rachel Meyer and York St. John University’s David Zendle. Dr Zendle was the co-author of a major study into loot boxes last year, presenting the findings to the Senate loot box inquiry and arguing for loot boxes and microtransactions to be identified in classification ratings.
The latest study is more concerning, warning that spending on problem gambling and loot box spending were “more than twice as strong as the relationship seen recently in a similarly recruited adult population”.
The survey collected information from 1158 pre-registered respondents in the four days before Christmas last year, with 88 percent of respondents identifying as male, 9 percent as female and another 3 percent as non-binary, genderfluid or another category.
Problem gambling indicators among respondents was measured using a series of questions from Canadian Adolescent Gambling Inventory’s Problem Gambling scale, and those surveyed were also asked to outline their motivations for buying loot boxes or microtransactions. 21.9 percent of respondents said they bought loot boxes to stay competitive in-game, while another 16 percent said they bought loot boxes for the experience and thrill of opening a box. Just under 10 percent of users said they bought loot boxes to support the creators of a game, while less than 1 percent bought loot boxes to resell the items inside.
The main findings of the survey was that “spending money on loot boxes” was linked to problem gambling in older teenagers, and the “severity of this relationship appears larger than in adult populations”.
“In one case, loot boxes are causing problem gambling among older adolescents,” the study argues. “In the other, they are exploiting problem gambling in this vulnerable age group in order to generate massive profits.”
Dr Zendle, whose 2018 study supported calls that “loot boxes are psychologically akin to gambling” and that the relationship between loot boxes and problem gambling was “stronger previously observed relationships between problem gambling and factors like alcohol abuse, drug use and depression”.
The latest study could not, however, prove a hypothesis linking spending on loot boxes to impulsiveness. A clear lack of a link couldn’t be established, but the authors reasoned that other factors — like social pressure — could play a factor. “It may therefore be the case that social pressure, or a desire to appear a certain way to other players, is a key determinant of loot box spending. Further qualitative research into the motivations of adolescents when it comes to buying loot boxes is necessary in order to better understand this.”
The study goes on to note that loot boxes may have made as much as $US30 billion in revenue for the video game industry, with no clarity on how much of that profit has come from younger gamers. “We would argue that regardless of the profitability of the loot box trade, the risks associated with them are worryingly high.”
As with last year’s study, the authors argued for regulators to treat loot boxes as a form of gambling and that ratings agencies should consider more warning labels, or restrictions, on games that feature loot boxes. “Ratings agencies may consider restricting access to games with paid loot boxes to players who are of legal gambling age. Alternatively, they may consider attaching content descriptors to games which feature loot boxes in order to ensure that parents and gamers are able to make an informed choice when purchasing a game that features loot boxes.”
“Even with adults, games companies may consider implementing responsible spending provisions in games that feature loot boxes. For example, they may consider implementing the ability for players to voluntarily set limits on the extent of their loot box spending.”