Study sees link between loot boxes and gambling

Most gamers surveyed believe loot boxes are a form of gambling, more than a quarter have sold loot box items

A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Addictive Behaviors last month has identified an association between high loot box engagement and problematic gambling behaviors.

The paper is the result of a study conducted by the University of British Columbia's Centre for Gambling Research. The researchers conducted the study in two phases, the first surveying 144 adult gamers from across North America about their loot box awareness and habits, the second replicating the process with a group of 113 UBC undergrads. The study used criteria adapted from research into problematic gambling behavior to identify "risky loot box use."

Speaking with the Vancouver Sun, the paper's lead author Gabriel Brooks said, "Typically we did have an association where the more one spent monthly, the more likely they were to endorse questions that associated with problematic gambling behaviour and/or problematic or risky loot box use."

While researchers found that association among both groups, it was stronger among the north American adults than the UBC students.

They found a number of other similarities between the groups. First, the vast majority of respondents were familiar with and had used loot boxes, with 88.9% of the North American group having opened a loot box in a game, and 94.8% of the student group having done so. A smaller but still substantial number had actually spent real money on loot boxes, 49.3% of the original respondents and 60.3% of the UBC undergrads.

Additionally, most respondents in both groups thought loot boxes were a form of gambling. Among the adults, 68.1% believed loot boxes were gambling, while 86.2% of the student group said they were gambling.

One of the industry's main defenses against the idea of loot boxes as a form gambling is that games don't offer players the option of cashing out and getting real-world money for their items, but it seems a significant number of players are finding ways around that. 27.8% of gaming adults in the study said they had sold a loot box or loot box item, while 39.7% of students had. 18.1% of adults even said they had profited from loot boxes, while 25.9% of students had turned a profit from them.

Brooks acknowledged the paper isn't enough to base legislation upon and said more research is needed into the subject, particularly into loot box use among children. However, he did suggest that people at risk for problematic gambling may be particularly susceptible to loot boxes as well. As for how the industry games with loot boxes should be handled, the report suggested a warning label explaining the game contains loot box mechanics, or allowing players to have their accounts on a given platform prohibited from buying such games.

Disclosure: Addictive Behaviors publisher Elsevier and parent Gamer Network are both owned by RELX.

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Latest comments (8)

Eddie In Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Boss Fight Entertainment3 years ago
I see two threads here:

1. I don't believe whether or not loot boxes are perceived as a form of gambling to be new. I suspect that a study on consumer perception of blind bags or most of the games at Chuck E' Cheese would yield a similar outcome. I bring up these latter examples not to continue the tired argument but to point out that when the looming subtext of the entire discussion is regulation, we should really be crystal clear in what is and isn't okay. Personally, I would have thought that social casino games would be the canary in the games regulation coalmine but somehow these are okay?

2. Putting the EULA aside for a moment, I cannot understand how the ability to re-sell a digital asset, like the contents of a loot box, automatically makes the loot box a gambling activity or makes games publishers into casinos. It isn't gambling, it's e-commerce. Just like how there are regulations in place to prevent children from becoming day traders on the stock market, we can apply the same treatment to loot box items.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Eddie In on 6th May 2019 5:39pm

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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University3 years ago
no one ever got outraged about packs of baseball cards or pokemon cards.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 3 years ago

There is a gigantic, multimillion dollar gambling industry using Counterstrike skins.

Kids use it too

Loot boxes hit the same endorphins as a slot machine, and yes, that’s exactly what those games at Chuck E Cheese are doing too.
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Show all comments (8)
Evtim Trenkov Founder, Playright Games3 years ago
Hey look! Responses to a survey about perception are presented as a scientific proof of a link. I Don't buy it.
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch3 years ago
@Jeff Kleist: Eating food hits those same endorphins. The body reacting to things is not, in of itself, evidence of a problem.

If people choose to break the terms of service and gamble, in my opinion that's no more the fault of a developer than for any producer of a stand-in wager, be that cigarettes, food or anything else.
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Eddie In Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Boss Fight Entertainment3 years ago
@Jeff Kleist:
Loot boxes are considered 'gambling' because you're paying into a random result which stimulates compulsive behavior (paraphrased Belgian ruling) and there is a potential for profit (paraphrased Dutch ruling).

There are many activities where we pay into random results that reasonable folks will agree should not be regulated by the government (ie. blind bags, trading cards, McDonalds Monopoly etc...). If we can't agree here, then you and I have very different views about the role of the state.

I also presented an argument as to why the potential for profit condition is also problematic because there is no difference between selling an e-book, song, bitcoin, shares in a company or Counterstrike Hat on a platform.

I feel that going down the path of trying to prove that loot boxes are gambling is a waste of time. The public would be better served if we just worked toward better consumer protection via additional transparency and added measures for children. To folks who think that doing so would cut into profits aren't thinking hard enough - games in Asia fully disclose their rates, have robust refund policies and still make money hand over fist.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 3 years ago
Rule 1, there are no absolutes, not even at extremes.
The action of an individual is not judged on the action alone, but in the context of the person profiting from this action. In its bluntest form, this means you may not kill people for your own benefit, but you may be asked to kill people for the benefit of the country. Same action, different beneficiaries, different perception by society.

Rule 2, children are recursive beasts.
When it comes to beneficiaries resulting from actions of children, the default value is the child itself. There may be secondary beneficiaries, but the prime beneficiary has to be the child. This is the western world we constructed. We have no problem pushing children hard and putting 6h school workloads on them, because in our perception that is for the benefit of the child. We do not push a 6h factory work-shift on children to the benefit of industrialists anymore.

You can feed different items sold to children into this logic and predict the results.

Example 1: physical trading card games. In this instance parents directly see with their own eyes the interaction between kids trading them and socializing over them. This is desired behavior, thus the child is a beneficiary of the trading card game. Other negative aspects of trading card games are offset by this.

Example 2: FiFa Ultimate team cards. In this instance parents see the kid interacting with the console and the TV. Socializing is barely visible and not connected to the Ultimate Team cards in the first place. Trading FiFa cards is not a system of one to one exchanges with a few variable factors on top, but is a system of always trading at a 10:1 loss or more, meaning they learn nothing about trading either.

As a result, one could argue for FiFa cards based on their similarity to trading cards while ignoring the other factors influencing the final decision of parents on how to perceive them, but that would be a mistake. Because prime point of contention by parents and consumer protection is not the way both articles are sold, but the different perception when it comes to the benefit of the product and where it rests. Counterstrike skins do not offend because they are expensive, they offend because they teach kids the wrong lesson, making them buy into promises of 'get rich quick' schemes, if they only gamble the system. This triggers fears of kids growing up having learned that rolling the dice to get rich quick is ok and the eventual career as a drug mule that might spawn. As irrational as that may sound, consider the anti-vaccination movement for a second. Irrational fear trumps any argument any day. This stacks the deck against any publisher that thinks mimicking something that is tolerated means that the reasons why something is tolerated is of no consequence.

As we move up the age ladder, we get into muddier territory. To some extend, once people have passed a certain age barrier, nobody will question whether their actions are to their benefit or not. At this point the self-evident directive of pursuing happiness may take over. Even then we still regulate when personal happiness causes damage to society, or even when the pursuit of happiness 'merely' causes self-destruction. Although we will frame self destructing behaviors, such as drugs, always in the context of it being a danger to all. Somehow lootboxes even managed to take that hurdle, which has left the video game industry in a pressure cooker made from a series of regulatory bodies for all ages.

tl;dr: Be considered useful, get away with it. Be blunt, expect to be dealt with. If that is too much to ask from your design department, then who is doing the designing there?
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Eddie In Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Boss Fight Entertainment3 years ago
@Klaus Preisinger: I agree with your main point. We should have a different standard when dealing with children. I also agree that we as a society can choose to demonize any activity regardless of consistency or logic (e.g. US position on tobacco vs. marijuana). Personally, I think the government should mind their own business but this tangent is for another forum entirely.

My point is that there isn't anything wrong with selling Counterstrike Hats over the Steam marketplace. The problem lies when we allow children to engage in aggressive trading behavior. Just like there are rules for children trading on Ebay or ETrade (they can't afaik), there should be similar rules for children on Steam. To this end, the discussion should be about how we verify people online and not whether something is gambling.
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