UBC Study Finds Link Between Video Game Loot Boxes, Gambling

A new study from the Centre for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia (UBC) raises concerns about the connection between video game loot boxes and gambling.

Luke Clark, psychology professor and director of the UBC center, delivered the findings at the New Horizons in Responsible Gambling conference.

The annual British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC) event took place in Vancouver this week.

Loot Boxes Function Like a Digital Grab Bag

There’s no guarantee about what you’ll get in loot boxes.

Loot boxes, or mystery boxes, will be familiar to most gamers. For those who don’t play, video game loot boxes are almost like a digital grab bag.

You don’t know what’s in it, but when you open one, you get to keep what’s inside.

However, in most cases, players need to buy the box to access what’s inside. Sometimes, that’s a high-value item or character. Sometimes, players uncover a standard or duplicate item.

And just like most of what’s inside, loot boxes commonly pop up in a wide range of games and apps.

Clark told Global News:

A number of countries and jurisdictions around the world have been concerned that loot boxes really represent a disguised form of gambling.

Researchers have seen this link in past research, a correlation between higher levels of spending on loot boxes and higher symptoms of problem gambling, but until now we haven’t really understood the cause and effect behind that relationships [sic].”

Study Found Clear Link Between Money Spent on Loot Boxes, Then Gambling

For the study, researchers surveyed over 400 gamers between 18 and 24 who gamed but didn’t gamble. Six months post-contact, researchers followed up to see if participants had started gambling.

The point of the research was a better understanding of the possible link between loot boxes and gambling psychology.

Namely, if being exposed to randomized rewards in video games made young people more likely to gamble.

Conversely, the study also examined whether adult gamblers were more inclined to purchase loot boxes in non-gambling games.

What they found, said Clark, is concerning:

We can see that clear migration effect, the people who are spending more on loot boxes are more likely to initiate gambling over that follow up period. And that link is really specific to the randomized micro transactions, the loot boxes.

That’s got a lot of implications for age restrictions around that feature, given that gambling is an age-restricted activity.

The complete findings of the peer-reviewed study will be published in Addictive Behaviors, a monthly science journal.

Loot Boxes Under Legal Scrutiny Around the World

These findings aren’t the first time a study linked loot boxes to gambling. Some countries have already begun course correcting, passing regulations on the issue.

An Austrian court drew the latest line in the sand, ruling that FIFA loot boxes constitute gambling. The soccer franchise is one of the most popular titles for Electronic Arts, a big-name game publisher.

Multiple class-action lawsuits have also targeted the legality of game companies’ loot boxes in Canada.

Involved parties settled at least one case before making it to court.

Twitch Gambling Streams May Add to the Problem

The gaming-gambling connection is showing up on other platforms, too.

Twitch, where gamers stream to the masses, has become a place people broadcast themselves or watch others gambling. And despite Twitch’s efforts to crack down on gambling content, the streams remain a big draw.

“Gambling is still one of the top categories on Twitch,” Raymond Wu, a UBC graduate student, told Global. “In fact, it’s the top 1 percent most popular.”

A cognitive science student, Wu investigated the Twitch-gambling link by studying gamblers who watch others compete online.

The results, said Wu, raised additional concerns:

Gambling stream viewers tended to be young men who were more vulnerable to gambling problems.

This is concerning because when gamblers aren’t out there and gambling, if they’re watching the streams the cravings that are triggered from these might push them to go and gamble.

Wu and Clark both say the studies prove the need for additional research and better public addiction and gambling education.

Parents are also urged to watch their kids’ gaming activities closely.

About the Author

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil (she/they) is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor, and a lead writer at Bonus. Here she focuses on news relevant to online casinos, while specializing in responsible gambling coverage, legislative developments, gambling regulations, and industry-related legal fights.
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