The lines between video games and gambling have become increasingly blurred over the past decade, with the introduction of features such as loot boxes. Loot boxes offer players the chance to gain items or rewards paid for with real money, but the contents of which are randomised and unclear at the time of purchase. Loot boxes have become a big business and a massive opportunity for profit for video game companies, with some players reportedly spending hundreds of pounds on these items each month with no guarantee of what they’ll win.
Forums are filled with posts from players who admit to spending, and losing, vast amounts of money due to poor impulse control. What’s more, players who have experienced gambling problems in the past are now finding that they are lured in once again through these randomised online purchases that seem innocuous on the surface but pose a big problem. Lootboxes have been in games in some form or another since the early 2000s, but they’ve gradually evolved to become a bigger system of in-app purchases. The model was popularised in Japan with gacha mobile games where players can receive a variety of characters by pulling or spinning the gacha, resembling a slot machine or roulette wheel. The model evolved from this harmless feature into something more akin to casinos where randomised item drops and virtual crates can be opened with real-life money. The contents of these boxes may be something small such as character skins or they may help the player progress in the game, but with the element of chance involved, it essentially turns this system into racecards like you’d have at a horse race.
It’s the chance-based nature of loot boxes that, in the same way as gambling, makes them a thrilling prospect. There are definite parallels with gambling and people have speculated that buying loot boxes triggers the same responses as occur with gambling, potentially leading to a gateway of developing problem gambling habits. In some countries, loot boxes have caused massive concern and there have been investigations over how they are used in gaming.
Studies suggest that the more money gamers spend on lootboxes and similar features, there more likely it is that they will develop problem gambling habits. There are also fears that because lootboxes aren’t age-restricted, younger players will develop these habits that will follow them through to adult life. More than half of top-grossing mobile games now contain lootboxes and as many as 94% of these are considered suitable for children of 12 and above.
Because younger children are more likely to exhibit compulsive and impulsive behaviours, there is a risk that lootboxes will become a more concerning issue as they become more prevalent in games. These features have changed the landscape of video gaming as well as extending the risk of gambling connections. What’s more, there’s a growing need to protect a portion of the population who is spending money they don’t earn, making this a harmful aspect of gaming that may be lucrative for the gaming market but poses a problem for gamers. There are calls for regulations to become stricter to protect vulnerable players but with such huge profits available to the gaming industry as a result of lootboxes, there will no doubt be an increase in these features in games in the future.