New UK Study Concludes Loot Boxes Harm Children
As loot boxes become even more common in online and mobile video games of all kinds, responsible gambling experts and advocates have been sounding a warning bell about the potential that they could be harmful to children, even as the topic itself has been rarely studied by scientists. But now, as a result of a three-year study by researchers in the United Kingdom, strong evidence has emerged on the effect of loot boxes on children.
Loot boxes are in-game items that function like a slot machine. A player, often a child, pays real-life money for a box of unknown items. Once purchased, the loot box is opened and a random assortment of in-game items pop out, often accompanied by engaging sounds and animations. Since the box itself is bought with real money and the items that come out of it are random, opening a loot box can simulate gambling behavior.
The study, conducted by Newcastle University, Loughborough University, and the UK Economic and Social Research Council, found that loot boxes cause tangible financial and emotional harm to young people. The researchers visited 42 homes in-person and remotely across England during 2019 and 2020, where they conducted 100 hours of videotaped interviews with youth and parents, as well as game designers. Children were observed while playing a wide variety of high-profile games, including Apex Legends, Call of Duty, Cookie Run: Kingdom, FIFA, Fortnite, Genshin Impact, Roblox, and Rocket League.
One family spent £1,000, or about $1,200, on their three children over the span of two years, and another spent almost £500, or about $600, on a mobile game in just one month. The study found that children found it difficult to track how much money they were spending, if they understood the value of money at all, and that the online games they were playing often drove them to make repeat harmful purchases.
“This harm can take a number of forms, from overt forms of compulsive spending that causes financial stress, to more covert and subtle forms of emotional harm, where the random nature of loot boxes induce senses of shame, disappointment, and frustration,” the researchers wrote. “Such experiences were exacerbated by the fact that children and young people often have no understanding of how chance-based mechanisms actually work.”
After engaging with loot boxes, some children expressed emotional difficulty and did more compulsive spending, all while not understanding that they were participating in gambling behaviors. At the same time, they found the allure of digital items like skins, which can allow them to express themselves in-game, to be quite compelling.
As a result of the study, the researchers suggested that paid systems in video games should be regulated by an independent agency in the United Kingdom, that parental controls be standardized across the industry, and that measures be developed that allow players to track their spending across platforms.
To access the full study, visit gaminggamblingresearch.org.uk.
And if you are worried about the online gaming habits of one of your children, a child in your class, or someone you know, Change the Game Ohio can help. To learn more about the dangers of youth gambling, as well as access discussion guides for caretakers, educators, and youth, visit ChangetheGameOhio.org.