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Gamers: Don't open that loot box, or you may become a gambler

19 Jun 2018

Could randomised loot boxes in your favourite video games be giving you a similar hit to the psychological effects of gambling?

One recent study by Massey University and the University of Tasmania suggests that yes, that may well be the case – and the authors ask whether games that have loot boxes should be regulated.

Massey University School of Psychology researcher Dr Aaron Drummond and The University of Tasmania Department of Psychology researcher Dr James Sauer looked at 22 video games that offered loot boxes.

You may know loot boxes as rewards that alter your game in some way – such as changing an avatar’s appearance or giving you more powerful weapons.

Drummond says New Zealand has more game developers per capita than any other country in the world.

“Understanding the psychological risks of mechanics such as loot boxes is essential to ensuring that the New Zealand game industry remains at the forefront of ethical and sustainable video game development.”

According to the authors, loot box rewards are usually randomised and rare game rewards are highly desirable.

They were most concerned about the increasing gaming trend of allowing players to buy loot boxes using real-world currency – a trend that is dependent of change and algorithms.

“This kind of reward structure is termed a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, and underpins many forms of gambling,” the authors say.

They also say that this type of reinforcement results in people starting and repeating behaviours often, in the hope of getting a reward.

They found that 45% of the games they analysed met all five psychological criteria to be considered a form of gambling.

Those criteria include:

  • The exchange of money or valuable goods
  • An unknown future event determines the exchange
  • Chance at least partly determines the outcome
  • Non-participation can avoid incurring losses
  • Winners gain at the sole expense of losers

They also warn that if we look at the implications where gambling is only legal to those above 18 in many countries, it could raise ‘serious concerns’ about how appropriate those games are for younger audiences.

Dr Drummond adds that there has been research about how teenagers can be influenced by peer pressure and the purchase of in-game currency with real money could eventually lead to gambling with real money.

“Given these features are similar to those underlying traditional forms of gambling, the Belgium Gaming Commission and Australian and US regulators are investigating whether loot boxes constitute a form of gambling,” the report says.

But the jury is out on whether this does actually constitute gambling.

“However, at present, there is no consensus on whether such simulated forms of gambling constitute illegal gambling operations.”

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