Loot boxes are an interesting feature in most popular modern games, which brings in a number of interest in special features, products and in-game items to players. Loot boxes are typically in the form of digital containers of randomised rewards, and are available in a number of video games. The box may contain rewards ranging from cosmetic items which alter the appearance of in-game characters to functional items that increase the player’s power in some way (like for example; a gun that fires faster or does more damage than the typical equipment.)
The developers behind Rocket League are preparing to rid the game of its loot boxes, a system which is intended for randomised in-game purchases, which some critics may say amounts to gambling. While most players praise the overall decision as a welcomed new development, the new change could easily threaten to upend one of the game’s most heavily invested communities — its black market.
So what exactly is a loot box? Currently, players can purchase loot boxes (known as crates in the game) to earn custom wheels, decals or cars to use in the game. In other games, loot boxes can give you new skins, limited edition armour, pets and more.There’s no guarantee what you’ll get when you open a new box, each containing one item from a set of potential offerings with various levels of rarity.
Alarmingly, the number of children with gambling problems has “quadrupled to more than 50,000 in just two years”, according to recent reports. The alarming figures come from the UK Gambling Commission’s latest annual statistics, which showed that the prevalence of problem gambling among children had risen to 1.7%, compared with 0.4% in 2016 and 0.9% in 2017.
Many popular video games – including Overwatch, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Star Wars Battlefront 2, FIFA Ultimate Team – now feature loot boxes or the like. The Gambling Commission’s report noted that 13% of teenagers aged 11 to 16 had played gambling-style games online, and that 31% had accessed loot boxes in a video game or app, to try to acquire in-game items.
Basically, to simplify these figures a little – the problem gambling within’ teenagers overall has actually been declining in the UK over the past 20 years. according to a review of research revealed that in 2000, roughly 5% of teenagers met the criteria for problem gambling – by 2016, it was less than a tenth of that. The Gambling Commission’s report also suggested that the major increase that was briefly recorded in 2018 could have been due to changes in the way survey data were collected – though the increase between 2016 and 2017 would not have been affected by this particular issue.
The game’s developer, and parent company Epic Games announced earlier this month that loot crates will be replaced with in-game purchases where users will know the “exact items you’re buying in advance,” removing the existing element of luck. But that randomness was a factor that benefited a group of players who amassed in-game items and then either traded or sold them to players who preferred to pay a premium than spend their money on the uncertain chance of landing their desired item in a loot crate.
Some might argue that buying loot boxes isn’t gambling, because the rewards only have value within the game. But this is not always exactly the case. In fact, there are a number of independent websites which allow players to trade in-game items or virtual currency, in exchange for real money.
Additionally, a recent study found evidence for a link between the amount that video game players spent on loot boxes and the severity of problem gambling. In a large survey of 7,422 gamers, the more money a person spent buying loot boxes, the more likely they were to be a problem gambler. The paper concluded that the gambling-like features of loot boxes could be responsible for problem gambling severity, because the buying of other in-game items had no relationship with the level of problem gambling.
This evidence does not prove that loot boxes cause problem gambling – but it did suggest that there is an association with it that would needs to be explored further to create substantial evidence. However, in saying that, there is further evidence that simulated gambling – gambling for free – within video games is a risk factor which increases the likelihood of teenagers gambling with real money and developing gambling problems.