UK researchers identify link between lootboxes and problem gambling

Kick it down the road.

Are lockboxes just another form of gambling? That depends on which government entity, scientist, lawyer, or doctor you ask. But maybe the question we ought to be asking is not whether they’re legally gambling but whether their effect is sufficiently similar to merit similar regulation – or whether, as the game industry argues, this is just the online equivalent of baseball cards and we should let it wind through the industry unimpeded.

That’s effectively the question being addressed in a new research paper by a group of computer and behavioral scientists in the UK. They surveyed adult games who played one of 10 major games with lockboxes, including Overwatch, PUBG, and League of Legends, to determine the relationship between non-gaming problem gambling and gaming lootbox spending.

“The results of this study suggest an important relationship between problem gambling and the use of loot boxes,” the paper finds. “The more severe that participants’ problem gambling was, the more money they spent on loot boxes.”

Worryingly, while that effect is “of small-to-medium size,” it turns out to be “one of the stronger relationships in the gambling literature” – stronger than depression and drugs and almost as strong as alcoholism.

However, the researchers also note that the causal relationship can’t be determined. “It may be the case that loot boxes cause individuals to become problem gamblers,” they caution. “It may also be the case that pre-existing gambling problems cause individuals to spend more money on loot boxes.”

Even so, the paper argues, if it’s the latter case – if lockboxes themselves are not creating problem gamblers out of thin air – lockboxes are still “providing an opportunity for games companies to exploit serious pre-existing psychological problems amongst their customers for massive monetary gains.”

“However, regardless of the direction of causality, the games industry faces a crisis of conscience. Industry bodies such as the ESRB can no longer claim that there is little evidence of a link between problem gambling and loot box use. We call on individual companies within the games industry to remove loot boxes from their products. When companies include loot boxes in their games, our results suggest that they are either proftting from problem gambling or causing problem gambling. Loot boxes have no place in video gaming culture. We also follow Drummond and Sauer in recommending that ratings agencies incorporate additional parental advisories into games that feature loot boxes. We recommend that games with loot boxes are restricted to players of legal gambling age. Given the severity of the link seen here we also strongly recommend that relevant authorities restrict access to loot boxes as if they were a form of gambling.”

You can read the preprint of the paper yourself over on PsyArXiv.

Source: Loot box spending in video games is linked to problem gambling severity by David Zendle and Paul Cairns on PsyArXiv
Update: The same researchers testified at an Australian government hearing regarding a different government-funded 7000+ gamer study on the same topic.

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