A recent study published in the Royal Society Open Science warns of a strong link between loot box spending and problem gambling in minors. The paper, titled “Adolescents and loot boxes: links with problem gambling and motivations for purchase“, found that adolescents aged 16-18 who purchased loot boxes were more than twice as likely to display signs of problem gambling as adults who purchased loot boxes.
The study was conducted by David Zendle, a media effects researcher and lecturer at York St. John University. Zendle and his co-authors surveyed 1155 16- to 18-year-olds in order to determine if loot box spending, loot box features, and/or impulsiveness are linked with problem gambling in adolescents. To do so, they posted a voluntary survey to approximately 100 gaming-related subreddits. The survey, which you can view here, collected responses on participants’ loot box spending habits, reasons for purchasing loot boxes, and self-reported impulsiveness. The survey also included the Canadian Adolescent Gambling Inventory (CAGI) Phase III in order to measure players’ problem gambling on a standardized scale.
In comparing the results to the author’s previous studies conducted exclusively on adults, Zendle found that the correlation between problem gambling and loot box spending was more than twice as strong as the correlation seen in adults. Though it is a compelling statistic, it is important to note that a correlation does not necessarily mean any causal relationship between the two. As Zendle notes, youth who are already predisposed towards gambling behaviors could simply be more likely to purchase loot boxes, adolescents who purchase loot boxes could become more likely to develop problem gambling, or external factors could contribute to both. In his conclusion, however, Zendle was of the opinion that regardless of which causes which, loot boxes pose a significant threat to young gamers, writing,
There is one clear conclusion that can be drawn from these results: when video game companies allow adolescents to buy loot boxes, they are potentially exposing them to negative consequences. It may be the case that loot box spending in adolescents causes problem gambling. It may be the case that loot boxes allow games companies to monetize problem gambling in these vulnerable populations for 11-digit annual profits. We believe that both relationships may potentially lead to serious adverse consequences for younger gamers. Loot boxes may have generated up to $30 billion in 2018 [source]. It is unclear how much of this revenue has come from adolescents. We would argue that regardless of the profitability of the loot box trade, the risks associated with them are worryingly high.
Zendle is far from the first person to take issue with the game industries marketing of loot boxes towards minors. Last month, the United Kingdom Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sports Committee grilled EA and Epic Games on the very same topic. In May, a bill banning loot boxes in video games was introduced to the United States Senate.
The study also found a few interesting tidbits about loot box spending. The most common reason (21.9%) given for purchasing loot boxes in the last month was to grant some sort of competitive advantage. The least common reason (.9%) was to make money or turn a profit, likely due to the inability or difficulty to do so in most games. When respondents were asked how long after getting a new game they had purchased their first loot box, a whopping 80.4% stated they did not buy their first loot box until over a month later.
Like with any study, however, the results do come with some caveats. The age range was only 16-18, so further research is needed to represent the younger demographic. The survey answers were also entirely self-reported and could be falsified by the participants. Though Zendle and his co-authors removed obviously fake responses such as one who “listed their loot box spending at over $20 000 and also incorporated an abusive message to the researchers into the qualitative portion”, there is still the possibility of people misrepresenting themselves and their behavior both intentionally and unintentionally. Finally, the participants were sourced exclusively through Reddit, meaning the results could be more skewed towards representing that specific online audience. Though these do not discount the study entirely, they should of course be kept in mind when forming your own opinions.
You can check out the full results of Zendle’s paper here.