Study claims video game loot boxes may encourage problem gambling

1 May 2019

Image: © lassedesignen/

One of the first studies to investigate links between in-game loot boxes and gambling could prove troubling for big video game companies.

If there is one thing for certain in the modern video game industry, it’s that buying a new game does not mean you won’t be paying for it again in the future. With the advent of online gaming – and particularly free mobile games – companies realised they could earn revenue from consumers by offering regular new content that you would have to pay real money for.

One way in which the companies do this is through something called ‘loot boxes’, where randomised content – in the form of cosmetic items for the player’s characters or in-game benefits – can be bought and won by the player. In many cases, the player is capable of winning these prizes through playing the game alone, but they can also be obtained quicker by buying them.

Critics of the loot box concept have gone as far as to describe this randomised winning as encouraging problem gambling, particularly among children. Now, researchers at the University of British Columbia have revealed findings that show players who are drawn to loot boxes bear a close resemblance to problem gamblers in terms of shared personality traits.

Publishing their findings to Addictive Behaviors, the researchers developed five questions designed to measure excessive or risky use of loot boxes. The gamers – all based in North America and of university age – were assessed on statements that included: ‘I frequently play games longer than I intend to so I can earn loot boxes’ and ‘I have bought more loot boxes after failing to receive valuable items.’

Participants also completed surveys that are commonly used in gambling research to assess gambling behaviour, beliefs about gambling, and risk-taking behaviour, as well as a newer survey designed to identify problem video gaming.

When the scores were compiled, they found a correlation between a strong engagement with loot boxes and measures of problem gambling. 90pc of respondents said that they had opened at least one loot box in a video game, with more than half spending money on them.

Youth study to follow

This, the researchers said, supports the view that loot boxes are a ‘gamblified’ feature of modern video games. They also said there was a small correlation found between loot boxes and those who could be classified as problem video gamers.

PhD student Gabriel Brooks and his colleagues warned that while the data shows significant overlap between loot boxes and gambling, it doesn’t show whether one causes the other. This suggests that while it is possible people with a predisposed problem with gambling are vulnerable to loot boxes, it could also suggest loot boxes lead to risky gambling behaviours.

“Our data involved adult gamers,” Brooks said. “There has been substantial concern regarding the impact of loot boxes upon youth. Studying youth exposure to loot box mechanisms would be a logical next step.”

The video game industry’s stance on the matter remains quite clear, with Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson stating the publisher does not see them as gambling, contrary to the Belgium Gaming Commission’s stance.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic