Loot boxes reported "structurally and psychologically akin to gambling"

Update: "The UK games industry has already taken action in regards to concerns around loot boxes," a UKIE spokesperson reacted

Original story: Links between loot boxes and gambling have been "robustly verified" by a new report commissioned by GambleAware, a UK charity aiming at reducing gambling-related harms.

The report, conducted by the University of Plymouth and the University of Wolverhampton ahead of the upcoming Gambling Act review, consolidated results from a dozen studies and found that loot boxes are "structurally and psychologically akin to gambling."

Looking at 7,771 loot box purchasers, the report showed around half of the revenue generated by loot boxes -- worth £700 million total in the UK in 2020 -- comes from 5% of buyers.

"A third of these gamers were found to fall into the 'problem gambler' category (PGSI 8+) establishing a significant correlation between loot box expenditure and problem gambling scores," GambleAware said.

The report also looked into the habits of 14,000 players and found that young men and those with a "lower educational attainment" are more likely to purchase loot boxes.

"The interviews also highlight that the digital assets in loot boxes often have real-world and/or psychological value," GambleAware continued. "This suggests that loot boxes could be regulated under existing gambling legislation."

The charity called for policies to be put in place, including a clear definition of what constitutes a loot box, enforceable age ratings on games, full disclosure of the odds when purchasing, spending limits, and prices displayed in real currency (as opposed to in-game currency).

Dr James Close, senior research fellow at the University of Plymouth and co-author of the report, commented: "Our work has established that engagement with loot boxes is associated with problem gambling behaviours, with players encouraged to purchase through psychological techniques such as 'fear of missing out'. We have also demonstrated that at-risk individuals, such as problem gamblers, gamers, and young people, make disproportionate contributions to loot box revenues. We have made a number of policy suggestions to better manage these risks to vulnerable people, although broader consumer protections may also be required."

At the end of 2020, a study by the Gambling Health Alliance suggested that young people struggle to keep track of how much they have spent on loot boxes. 23% of 11 to 16-year-olds said they had paid money to open loot boxes, with 34% of all respondents saying they had first purchased them by the time they were 13, due to the lack of age restrictions on games containing the randomised monetisation mechanic.

Germany recently passed a proposed reform to the country's youth protection law, which could result in new standards being applied to video games featuring loot boxes.

Loot boxes are expected to generate $20 billion worldwide by 2025.

Update: UK games trade body UKIE reacted to the publication of GambleAware's report, highlighting the recent actions taken to set guidelines around loot boxes.

"The UK games industry has already taken action in regards to concerns around loot boxes," a UKIE spokesperson said. "Probability disclosures has already been introduced to the major game platforms; a new paid random item descriptor was added to the PEGI age rating system in 2020 to inform players of their presence; settings and tools on all major game devices -- and in a number of leading games -- already allow players to manage, limit or turn off spend.

"You can find out about all these measures, and more about responsible play, at We will also continue to work constructively to support our players in partnership with Government and other organisations."

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Latest comments (1)

Ian Griffiths Product Owner, HutchA year ago
Reading through this report and a few things strike me; it's not adding much new, it's throwing in claims in the summary that it admits have a weak evidential basis, and it's pushing a fairly transparent anti free-market, anti consumer choice and frankly anti capitalist ideology.

The report comments on how real world violence was tied to gaming but that the research found little to no evidence but it then goes on to say that it's equally weak evidence is somehow sufficient to convey a problem. Let's take some of these quotes:
-"What our aggregated data analysis cannot reveal, however, is the degree to which such spending translates into downstream harm, such as distress or poorer psychological wellbeing."
-"It remains to be established whether relationships between loot box purchasing and problem gambling translate into psychological harm"
-"Having discussed the harms that may be associated with loot box purchases, in the next section we shall discuss the various responses to these putative harms."

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Close & Lloyd, GambleAware, Lifting the Lid on Loot-Boxes (2021)
The report itself seems to admit that it doesn't have strong evidence to convey these points yet it heavily leans on the assumptions that they are true later on. It even tries to class spending £70 a month as 'financial harm', while not showing that would be problematic for the income levels reports. They also ignore that £70 might be a completely reaosnable amount of money to spend on a hobby or pastime.

As is so common, experts in one field think that their expertise expands to wider domains; development, politics and economics - it doesn't and this 'report' is evidence of that. We can see how simplistic this thinking goes by the end of the 'report':
"This all begs the question: would an outright ‘loot box ban’ be simpler for all concerned – developers, gamers, governments, taxpayers alike? This approach would have advantages. It would likely be popular, applauded by many gamers, whose attitudes toward them are predominantly negative11. Moreover, such a straightforward move would free up limited government and regulatory resources
for more pressing tasks."

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Close & Lloyd, GambleAware, Lifting the Lid on Loot-Boxes (2021)
When you don't understand a topic, you think fixing it is easy. Saying things like - we should just ban it are what leads to such bad policy making decisions because they're necessarily ignorant of the complexity of the area being discussed.

I worry about the idea that the authors think this would be applauded by gamers, this seems to show that their audience isn't particularly broad. People who play the likes of Pokemon Go and RAID Shadow Legends may be quiet but they vastly outnumber the loud minority of 'gamers'.

If these were psychologists treating patients of an new condition and wanted it recognised in the DSM, that would be fine; if this data came from more varied sources (though I recognise that they’re working with the best data available) and the discussions weren't so strongly qualitative, that would help. However, what we're seeing here is some experts in the field of psychology, reasonably analysing the data which is great, unfortunately that's tied off with an ideological presentation more interested in deciding what's best for others based on scant evidence and driving regulation for whatever means.

I'd love to see a robust analysis of this topic, I'd even want to help out with getting data, but what I'm seeing here feels like it's more interested in ideology than analysis.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Ian Griffiths on 7th April 2021 1:19am

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