Around one in six children steal money from their parents to pay for video game loot boxes – in-game ‘treasure chests’ that award players random virtual prizes.
In a survey of British teen and young adult gamers, Gambling Health Alliance (GHA) found 15 per cent had taken money from parents without permission to buy loot boxes.
Overall, one in ten – 11 per cent – had used their parents’ credit or debit cards to fund their loot box purchases, while 9 per cent had borrowed money they couldn’t repay for the addictive in-game feature.
Three young gamers’ loot box buying habits resulted in their families having to re-mortgage their homes to cover the costs, according to the study.
GHA is currently putting pressure on the UK government to class loot boxes in video games as a form of gambling.
Experts argue that ‘loot boxes’ in video games are a form of gambling. One psychologist has said that the boxes, which regularly appear in games for children and can be bought with real money, are ‘literally slot machines’. Pictured is a loot box in the popular shooter Overwatch
WHAT ARE LOOT BOXES?
Loot boxes feature in many modern games, including popular shooter Overwatch and football simulator Fifa.
The boxes are regularly given to players when they level up or accomplish certain tasks, and when opened give the player a random in-game reward.
On top of boxes earned through playing the game, players can also buy them with real money, causing some to argue they are a form of gambling.
One video game publisher that includes loot boxes and other ‘micro-transaction’ features in its games is Electronic Arts, which is behind the Fifa franchise.
Fifa’s popular Ultimate Team mode, in which players buy and open digital ‘packs’ of cards, earns EA £600 million ($800 million) a year.
Manveer Heir, a game designer who has worked with EA, told video game guide site Waypoint in November 2017 month he had seen people ‘literally spend £11,400 ($15,000) on Mass Effect multiplayer cards.’
It follows Digital Minister Caroline Dinenage issuing an appeal in September for evidence they encourage or lead to problem gambling among children.
‘We know that many teenagers will be unwrapping video games for Christmas,’ said Duncan Stephenson, chair of Gambling Health Alliance and deputy chief executive of Royal Society for Public Health.
‘While we know they give a huge amount of enjoyment for many, we are concerned that games containing loot boxes are having an impact on the finances of young people.
‘Our research suggests that the drive to play games containing loot boxes is encouraging many to beg, borrow and steal – loot boxes really are the gift that keeps on taking.’
Loot boxes appear in around 70 per cent of the most popular games on the gaming platform Steam, and 60 per cent of the top mobile games on Google Play and the Apple app store.
They could contain a new gun in a shooting game, a new car in a driving game or even a high quality footballer on the game FIFA.
But they may also contain nothing the player wants or needs, even though they’ve spent real money on it.
In 2018, $30 billion was spent on loot boxes worldwide, and it’s estimated this figure could rise to $50 billion by 2022.
While in the UK alone, it is estimated that £750 million is spent on loot boxes annually.
Gabe Zichermann, an expert on addiction to technology, previously said that loot boxes use ‘operant conditioning’.
This means they give out the best rewards at random intervals to stop people from recognising a pattern.
‘It is literally, exactly, a slot machine,’ he told Canadian broadcaster CBC.
‘They’re all based on the same basic fundamental behaviour pattern – when people cannot predict how much they’re going to get, they often get very focused and fixated on it, and want to do it over and over again, past the point of rationality.’
Loot boxes feature in many modern games, including popular shooter Overwatch. The boxes are regularly given to players when they level up or accomplish certain tasks, and when opened give the player a random in-game reward (pictured)
The GHA decided to investigate the damage of loot boxes this year, following reports people have spent longer playing video games to offset the boredom of the coronavirus lockdown.
Between October 29 and November 16 this year, survey data was collected from 611 respondents aged 13 to 24 living in England, Scotland and Wales.
LOOT BOXES ‘A FORM OF GAMBLING’
Loot boxes use a mechanism similar to the one in a slot machine and should be classed a form of gambling, according to the GHA.
Gamers pay money in the hope of getting a prized item, not knowing what the odds are of winning it, with chance deciding whether you do or not.
Inside, there may be an item which helps you progress within the game or enhances your character’s appearance.
But equally it might be something that is of no value.
Gamers have no way of knowing how much they’d need to spend in total to get the item which you really want.
The reason loot boxes aren’t already regulated is because the items inside loot boxes are not designated as ‘money or money’s worth’.
But there are plenty of third-party sites where the prizes can be bought and sold or gambled for money (known as skin betting).
The survey sought to understand loot box purchasing habits, and the impact of loot boxes on health and well-being.
On top of the purchase price of a video game – which averages at £35 – almost 22 per cent of respondents spent more than £100 on loot boxes over the course of completing a game, the GHA found.
In all, 24 per cent said they felt addicted to loot boxes, while 44 per cent said they experienced more frustration and anger due to a sense of being cheated or ripped off by loot boxes.
Just under a third – 31 per cent – said they struggled to keep track of how much they spent on loot boxes and 33 per cent said they did not feel in control of their spending on loot boxes.
It wasn’t just the young adults accounting for the worrying stats – 23 per cent of 11 to 16-year old gamers surveyed said they had paid money to open loot boxes.
Young people have described feelings of addiction and pressure to spend more on loot boxes so they can win items to impress their friends, GHA previously found – which leads to deeper problems.
‘Aside from the financial cost our latest survey with gamers suggests that the fixation with loot boxes can lead to classic symptoms of addiction including mood swings, problems sleeping and impacting on their social life,’ said Stephenson.
Gamers are being set on a path ‘to an expensive and potentially addictive habit this Christmas’, which is why GHA is advising people not to buy games featuring loot boxes as last minute presents.
‘We are calling for parents to be aware of the risks of loot boxes when buying presents this Christmas,’ Stephenson added.
Loot boxes, which can be purchased in many computer games, award players random virtual prizes which can be used to improve their playing experience
‘Boycott games with these predatory mechanics until we see them classified as a form of gambling and removed from games played by under 18s.’
In the UK, the House of Lords Gambling Committee has also called for loot boxes to be brought under the Gambling Act, which would make them illegal for under-18s to buy.
The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has also recommended that loot boxes be classified as gambling.
According to a previous GHA survey of 1,100 young people, 58 per cent thought loot boxes counted as gambling.
GHA was established by the Royal Society for Public Health in 2019 with the aim to bring together organisations and individuals with a shared interest in reducing the damage caused to health and well-being from gambling.
Members include the Royal British Legion, Citizens Advice, and NHS Substance Misuse Providers.
IS VIDEO GAME ADDICTION REAL?
Research published earlier this month found that video game addiction probably isn’t real.
Very few gamers meet the criteria for addiction, known as ‘internet gaming disorder’ (IGD), and instead use games to fill gaps in other areas of their life.
IGD is loosely defined as someone who suffers from five or more of nine criteria, including: Jeopardising jobs or education because of playing video games; lying about time spent gaming; and using gaming to relieve anxiety.
The research, from experts at Cardiff University, followed thousands of online gamers over a period of six months.
The team gave over 2,000 adult US gamers questionnaires about their physical activity, health and lifestyle.
None of the participants met the criteria for IGD at both the start and end of the six-month study and so weren’t diagnosed with addiction.
‘The study’s results suggest that it’s not clear how many resources should go to gaming addiction, compared to other addictions like drugs,’ lead author Dr Netta Weinstein told New Scientist.
The research also found that those who showed some symptoms of gaming addiction were more likely to be unhappy in other areas of their life, such as their relationship or career.