Loot boxes are a matter of 'life or death' for problem gamblers, says researcher

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Speaking at a panel during the FTC's recent workshop on videogame loot boxes, York St. John University research Dr. David Zendle stated unequivocally that loot boxes are connected to problem gambling. As reported by GamesIndustry, Zendle acknowledged that the causal relationship between the two isn't clear, but said that the connection "is a clear cause for concern" that should not be trivialized.

"Spending money on loot boxes is linked to problem gambling. The more money people spend on loot boxes, the more severe their problem gambling is. This isn't just my research. This is an effect that has been replicated numerous times across the world by multiple independent labs," Zendle said. "This is something the games industry does not engage with."

"This is so important. It's not something we should trivialize or laugh at or compare to baseball cards. This is life or death."

The question of whether loot boxes are a gateway into other forms of problem gambling, or if people who have gambling problems to start with are naturally drawn to loot boxes, remains unanswered, and it could work both ways. But in Zendle's opinion, it doesn't really matter in any practical sense.

"In either case, it's a clear cause for concern and not something to be trivialized. In one case, you have a mechanism in games that many children play that is literally causing a state of affairs that is enormously destructive. And if loot boxes do cause problem gambling, we're looking at an epidemic of problem gambling the scale of which the world has never seen," he said.

"And if that's not true—and I'm totally open to that not being true—then you've got a system in which game companies are differentially profiting from the most vulnerable of their consumers. Problem gamblers already have enormous issues in their lives. They don't need to have their money taken away from them through this as well."

Zendle has authored multiple reports on loot boxes and gambling, and is unambiguous in his findings. In the 2018 article "Videogame loot boxes are linked to problem gambling: Results of a large-scale survey," for instance, he concluded, "This research provides empirical evidence of a relationship between loot box use and problem gambling. The relationship seen here was neither small, nor trivial. It was stronger than previously observed relationships between problem gambling and factors like alcohol abuse, drug use, and depression." 

He also called for "additional parental advisories" from rating agencies and recommended that "national and federal regulatory authorities consider restricting access to loot boxes as if they were a form of gambling."

Regardless of the psychological connection between the two, some of those regulatory bodies, including in the UK and France, have determined that legally, loot boxes do not qualify as gambling. The US is showing signs of imposing some sort of regulatory regime, however, which would lead to international, industry-wide consequences. 

The game industry appears to be trying to get in front of possible regulation by embracing more transparency in loot boxes: Major publishers and platform holders including Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo recently agreed to start publishing loot box odds in all their games by the end of 2020.

Other researchers also spoke on the topic during the panel. Dr. Sarah Domoff of Central Michigan University said that regardless of the regulation situation, "we definitely need better documentation about what parents should consider, whether from within the industry or from consumer groups such as Common Sense Media, because it's just really complicated and there are so many games for parents to keep up with."

And Dr. Adam Elmachtoub of Columbia University, speaking on the economic modeling of loot boxes, suggested that, unlike randomized physical products such as baseball cards, loot box buyers are more susceptible to exploitation because the companies that sell them can see what you already own.

"Being able to take advantage of that would obviously be beneficial to the seller and allow them to exploit more. But also it would be bad for consumers because it would be very, very difficult for them to understand their optimal purchasing strategies in the long run of the game," he said during a Q&A session. "It would be very hard to anticipate how much money they would need to succeed in the game if everything's updating dynamically."

Andy Chalk

Andy has been gaming on PCs from the very beginning, starting as a youngster with text adventures and primitive action games on a cassette-based TRS80. From there he graduated to the glory days of Sierra Online adventures and Microprose sims, ran a local BBS, learned how to build PCs, and developed a longstanding love of RPGs, immersive sims, and shooters. He began writing videogame news in 2007 for The Escapist and somehow managed to avoid getting fired until 2014, when he joined the storied ranks of PC Gamer. He covers all aspects of the industry, from new game announcements and patch notes to legal disputes, Twitch beefs, esports, and Henry Cavill. Lots of Henry Cavill.