Researchers for the University of British Columbia have confirmed a link between loot boxes and gambling. Specifically they found that if you partake in loot boxes excessively, you’re also more likely to think certain problem gambling behaviors are okay. This is in line with earlier research on the topic, but it leaves a lot of ground to cover.
For this study the scientists had 144 online respondents representing North America’s adult gamers. An additional 113 undergraduates made up a second test group. Both were asked to fill out a questionnaire, assessing their perception of this type of monetization. Their answers were compared to criteria established in problem gambling research to identify “risky loot box use.”
The general consensus amongst participants was that loot boxes were indeed a form of gambling. Interestingly the majority of both groups had still used them, with 49.3 percent of the first and 60.3 percent of the latter saying they’d spent real money on them as well.
Fortunately this did not automatically qualify them as at risk for gambling addiction. In fact, the student group was found to have a much lower risk percentage, despite having more people spending money on the items. Their average spent was $17.50 a month, with 10 percent putting down over $50. We don’t know the expenditures of the gamer group, but one would assume that their spenders put in a lot more.
This is not necessarily true however. Last year a study in the UK found the monthly difference between no-risk and high-risk gamblers to be only $16. This suggests there are other factors at play here as well. It’s also worth noting that what we’re looking at here is an overlap in beliefs between this group and problem gamblers, not a causal relationship. We don’t know that these people become addicts because they spent on these reward schemes.
There are obvious similarities with gambling of course, many purposefully designed so. For example, the study also found that 27.8 percent of the adult gamers and 39.7 percent of the students had sold a loot box or item from it for real money, with over half of those saying they had profited from it as well. This is akin to “cashing out” one’s gambling winnings, the facilitation of which is something Valve is currently in court for.
Still, as most studies stop short at establishing that there’s a relationship of some sort, there’s much left unclear about its effects. It is also hard to find out more about them in the current climate. With politicians saying silly things to curry public favor and the industry, weary of yet another moral outrage over its products, entrenching itself and only acting when forced to, constructive dialogue is hard to find.
This lack of agreement only makes further research more important. The authors acknowledge this, particularly regarding loot box use among children. The latter group, often a catalyst for hasty legislation, is thought the most vulnerable to the risky behaviors studied. Last year it was found that 54 percent of them between the age of 11 and 16 were aware of the possibility to pay money for loot boxes and that 31 percent had already done so. These numbers seem unlikely to go down while the involved parties grandstand.
As for solutions, the report suggests warning labels and the ability to prohibit accounts to make loot box purchases. While a measured response, it seems unlikely that this will be enough for opponents. What we do know for sure is that the last word on all of this has yet to be said.
Writer, developer and esports observer from the land of cheese and windmills.