New Study Reaffirms Link Between Problem Gambling And Loot Boxes

New Study Reaffirms Link Between Problem Gambling And Loot Boxes
Image: Overwatch

Loot boxes have been linked with problem gambling in various studies over the past few years, but a new meta-analysis of these studies has now provided a definitive correlation between the two issues and identified a need to better regulate in-game spending. With loot box revenue expected to reach $US20 billion ($25.6 billion) by 2025, it’s an issue that could soon have widespread impacts on the gaming industry, and on global mental health.

The study, carried out by the School of Psychology at Massey University in New Zealand and the University of Tasmania in Hobart, aimed to analyse specific research focusing on the correlation between loot box spending and problem gambling to determine how this relationship was formed and what impacts it had on vulnerable players.

“We found significant small-to-moderate positive correlations between loot box spending and gambling symptomology,” the report states. “Our results suggest a small, but replicable and potentially clinically relevant, relationship between gambling symptomology and loot box spending.”

The report states this occurs through the encouragement of in-game purchases to overcome difficult segments of games, as well as the existence of purchase incentives such as powerful items or timed exclusive goods like Halloween skins. Excessive purchases were also found to be encouraged by the “variable-ratio reward schedule”, a feature common to conventional gambling “known to promote rapid uptake and frequent repetition of behaviour”.

By further incentivising in-game purchases with auditory and visual cues (i.e. celebration noises and colourful lights), the study states developers create an atmosphere that strongly resembles slot machines. Given slot machines are heavily regulated in Australia and other regions, it stands to reason loot boxes should be given the same treatment.

This is a core concern identified in the study: “Some loot boxes meet common legal criteria of gambling: requiring an entry cost (consideration), having an outcome based on chance (chance), and providing a reward (prize) of value.” Despite this, many regions are reluctant to put legislation in place to protect vulnerable people from these tactics.

Given the existing, proven links between problem gambling and in-game purchases, the study reasons there should be greater attention paid to regulation of in-game purchases and providing psychological help for players who often and repeatedly purchase them in excess.

The results of the study make clear there’s a small-to-moderate link between problem gambling, excessive gaming and loot box spending, with further evidence that players who suffer from problem gambling appear to spend more on loot boxes than others without this issue. While the study recommended further research on the topic, it did state the implications of this link are dire.

“If loot boxes are disproportionately bought by those with problem gambling symptoms or who play excessively, this would require careful consideration of the implementation of appropriate harm minimisation techniques (e.g. limit setting) to mitigate the potential for harm to these vulnerable users,” it states.

The report also recommends that practicing clinicians working in fields of psychology and mental health understand loot boxes and how they can play into issues of problem gambling that may otherwise go unseen or untreated.

Debate continues to rage around loot boxes and how they impact vulnerable gamers, and it’s likely this discussion will continue long into the future. Clinical studies like these are an important step towards addressing concerns about loot boxes and protecting the most vulnerable gamers in our community — and we can expect to see more like them in future.


  • Well the Australian Senate Inquiry did ask for more studies before recommending regulation… so how many studies do they need is my question?

    Or is all of this just academic, to answer a question that is obvious to everyone but politicians, as their minds are impossible to change cause government is slow and archaic in its mindset?

    • The problem is one of constant obfuscation, similar to what the cigarette companies mastered over many years. Similar to what climate change denialists keep doing.

      There are never enough studies because only a tiny fraction of studies say what opponents of regulation want to hear, but it’s still enough to sow doubt. Delay, delay, deny, misdirect…

      The only way politicians are going to take any action is if they think there are votes to be gained in it, and it’s hard to establish that when you’ve got a well resourced corporate astroturfing campaign going on countered primarily by a few academics and community activists.

    • Perhaps these games need to have the same restrictions on them as other certain video games, and that games involving loot boxes require an 18+ certification.

      Not sure if its slow moving, but certainly what’s going on in Europe will drive our laws here too.

      • Recent change in Australia is the inclusion of “in-game purchases” and “gambling themes” to the classification criteria.

        Either if those inmediatly bumps the game to a PG rating… but I would of preferred it goes to M15 or R rating.

  • Funnily enough I do loot box style gambling, but I don’t do any other form of gambling or have an interest in it at all. Even the minigames in the Yakuza titles are just a form of annoyance to getting 100% completion.

    • Random internet dude claims to have no interest in gambling; guess we can all breathe easy then.

      • If for some bizarre reason you thought I’d be against regulation and closing that shit down, hells no. I’m up front with the pitchforks and torches. Cut that crap out and just have it part of the base game (preferrably) or reasonably priced DLC.

        Just saying in my instance that its not acting as a gateway to other forms of gambling.

        • Which makes total sense. Not everyone has the genetic markers for gambling addiction (I think they linked it to the remnants of some old prehistoric virus in certain people), so not everyone who engages with it gets addicted. There’s enough people though with that genetic marker for it to be a serious problem.

  • Imagine my complete lack of surprise that the umpteenth study has revealed a correlation between lootboxes and gambling symptoms. There’s so many studies showing it at this point that a study finding against it would be far more interesting and controversial. The politicians are running out of excuses for not dealing with it though, since those opposing studies don’t seem to exist.

  • That shit needs regulating, ASAP. And not just that weaksauce, “Show the odds,” diversionary bullshit that’s utterly irrelevant to the mechanisms by which MTX systems manipulate psychology. I imagine that stuff is even less effective than, “Smoking causes cancer,” warnings on cigarette packaging.

    I’m talking treat it like gambling. More warnings. Tax the fuck out of it. Make it illegal for under-18s. Ban advertising in certain places. (If only gambling itself were also more restrictive… fucking sportsbet/ladbrokes ads everywhere.)

    • As a loot boxer, I’d say being shown the odds and seeing that the 5* has a 0.1% chance of dropping is pretty darn disheartening.

      … doesn’t always stop me, depending on the game and the prize. But when a game develops a reputation for terrible odds, whether its anecdotal or experiential, then it becomes easier to walk away from them. That specific luck seems to be ‘seeded’ to your account when its generated is another terrible thing.

    • For me the biggest thing is

      Loot Boxes must NOT contain exclusive items, all items in Loot boxes should be able to be sold separately for the full term of the loot boxes availability. (is if I want a Legendary skin, I should be able to buy it without paying for a single Loot box)

      Bans for selling to minors, parental controls and no in-game advertising or “free Loot boxes” to entrench impulse buying.

    • I like all of the above ideas, with the additional bonus of forcing these companies to spend money on gambling awareness campaigns for adults and children.

  • I think the only way to really get the Governmeny on board is to prove microtransaction greedy developers are pay little to no taxes in Australia.

    Since most microtransactions are either through tax-avoiding mega corporations like Apple, Google, Sony, Microsoft, EA they only pay GST and 0.05 cent to the dollar… and the developers/publishers pay ZERO local revenue taxes.

    Politicians love going after tax avoiders.

    I think a Microtrasaction regulation should include licensing, local escrow accounting with full ATO auditing, and special tax…. and if you regulate the purchases and taxes your already half a gambling law.

    • ‘Politicians love going after tax avoiders.’ [citation needed]

      There are plenty of bigger fish not paying tax in Australia. The current government seems to think this is all well and good because they’re Job Creators.

      • Australian government has been leading the push in the “G” summits to have global minimum tax thresholds and more anti-tax avoidance laws.

        The ATO also has some big wins against Apple, Google, Microsoft and Mining over Singapore shell companies… still not massive slam dunks since they were settlements not judicial victories.

  • The report this article is based on is going to be pretty well scrutinised as the correlation strength is weak enough that it could be dismissed as irrelevant.

    The only real value of the study is that it shows more research is needed – something already known.

  • 1) Whilst poker machines may be regulated, they’re still fucking everywhere because the government makes a metric fuckton from them. Take a look at Adelaide, where the introduction of poker machines DESTROYED the city’s nightlife, and pushed violence and crime higher out in the suburbs.
    So what I’m saying is regulation doesn’t do shit.

    2) During the 80s and 90s, hundreds of studies showed links between violence and games. It wasn’t until the mid 2000s when the children in the 80s and 90s started studying psychology themselves that those studies were looked at and analysed and found to be if not outright fraudulent, then using highly suspect methodology. However, this didn’t stop regulators and lawmakers creating harsher restrictions for the sale of video games.

    Whilst you might claim you want regulation, I remind you the science on this is NOT established, and moreover, it wasn’t until 2013 that videogames got an R-Rating, which is 43 years after it was introduced for movies… (and that the criteria is still harsher than movies.)

    Do you really want to have games restricted for another 40 plus years because you don’t like loot boxes?

    • And I say this as someone who despises gambling – to the point where in games I will savescum if I lose if I have to play any gambling games and lose (such as in Red Dead Redemption)
      If I could, I’d ban all forms of gambling. I’d close casinos, ban footy tipping, and do away with the Melbourne Cup.

      HOWEVER – I know that prohibition never works.

      What is needed is education to stop the pathways into gambling, and support for the pathways out of it.

      • Prohibition is not what modern Gambling laws do… they regulate the industry to protect consumers, reduce criminal behaviour and fraud, additional accountablity to financial laws , restrict sale to minors, and to provide an industry code of conduct regarding licensing, advertising and auditing.

        I want to a) protect vulnerable people b) remove the shadey odd-fixing and match-fixing pay-2-win mechanics c) remove lootbox exclusive items d) make them pay their tax bill.

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