A feature that has become part of the majority of popular video games threatens to become a gateway to problem gambling according to many experts in the field.

Loot boxes are consumable virtual items in video games that can be redeemed to receive a randomized selection of further virtual items, or loot, ranging from simple customization options for a player’s avatar or character, to game-changing equipment such as weapons and armor.

Loot boxes are extremely profitable for video game companies. Payments are made through micro-transactions that may involve box purchases of 99 cents. However, repeated purchases of loot boxes can quickly escalate into thousands of dollars of purchases over time.

Similarity to Gambling

The issue is whether the features of loot boxes are similar to those of slot machines or other forms of gambling. Recently, Keith White, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, issued a statement to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission summarizing NCPG’s perspective.

“Players who pay to play a slot machine or unlock a loot box are risking that money for the chance of winning a prize or reward that is of value to them,” Keith says in the statement. “Factors common to many loot boxes and slot machines include random distribution of prizes, variable value of the prizes, near-miss features, and visual and sound cues associated with participation and reward. These feature are well known to trigger urges to play along with increase excitement and faster play.”

Research Shows Cause for Concern

While research on loot boxes and gambling problems is in its infancy, early reports show reason for concern, concluding that paying for loot boxes is linked to problem gambling. This includes behavioral patterns that damage personal, family or vocational pursuits, and can result in increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, and restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop. The behavior also included “chasing” losses and the inability to stop despite negative consequences.

An early large study of more than 7,000 gamers found evidence of a link between the amount that gamers spent on loot boxes and the severity of their gambling problems. Further, Mark Griffiths, Ph.D., prominent gambling researcher, has stated that loot boxes meet “almost any definition of gambling currently used in the field of social sciences.”

NCPG’s Recommendations

The NCPG believes a precautionary approach is appropriate for loot boxes given the potential negative impacts on youth. It recommends a multi-layered approach to users, parents and communities to ensure an appropriate range of protections is put into place for youth and other vulnerable populations. The goal is for measures to:

  1. Better inform consumers. Some of the possible tactics include facilitating informed choice (i.e., disclosing the number and value of items in loot boxes and the frequency of distribution), developing youth-specific addiction messaging, providing addiction rates among users paying for loot boxes, and prohibiting ads targeting youth.
  2. Prevent gambling-related problems. Some of the strategies NCPG calls for in this area include encouraging parents to enable parental controls, allowing players to set limits on time and money spent, developing third party consumer protection to verify compliance by designers and game companies, and funding media literacy campaigns dedicated to vulnerable populations on loot boxes and other in-game gambling-like mechanisms and advertising.
  3. Facilitate treatment seeking and support recovery. This includes providing links to NCPG’s upcoming ResponsiblePlay.org website (a resource for children and adults concerned with the negative consequences of online gaming behavior) and allowing for self exclusion through payment providers and global lists.
  4. Increase the evidence base. This involves requiring companies that include loot boxes in their games to provide access to anonymous player data (which can be used to develop gaming behavior profiles) and calling for NIH Institutes, particularly NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development), NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) and NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), and CDC (Centers for Disease Controland Prevention) to commission intra- and extra-mural research into loot boxes.

The NCPG emphasizes that while regulation is important, maximum effectiveness will be reached when accompanied by prevention, education, treatment, and recovery and research services. NCPG’s statement on loot boxes can be found here.