A feature that has become part of the majority of popular video games threatens to become a gateway to problem gambling: loot boxes. Loot boxes are consumable virtual items in video games that can be redeemed to receive a randomized selection of further virtual items, or loot, ranging from simple customization options for a player’s avatar or character, to game-changing equipment such as weapons or armor.

Loot boxes are extremely profitable for video game companies. Payments are made through micro-transactions that may involve box purchases of 99 cents. However, repeated purchases of loot boxes can quickly escalate into thousands of dollars of purchases over time.

The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) believes that many games with loot box systems already meet criteria for gambling, as players who make purchases of these boxes don’t know if the item they seek will actually be in the box.

Some loot boxes that have the same or similar characteristics of slot machines may not meet legal definitions of gambling but carry the same risks for addiction.

A legal definition of gambling is not required for a feature like a loot box to cause harm. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and ICD (International Classification of Diseases) clinical criteria for gambling disorder do not require that rewards be “real money” or preclude a diagnosis if the client played with virtual coins or received several free plays before spending excessive amounts of time and money purchasing loot boxes.

  • Factors common to many loot boxes and slot machines:
  • random distribution of prizes
  • variable value of the prizes
  • visual and sound cues associated with participation and reward trigger urges to play along with increased excitement and
  • faster play

Consequences of gambling problems:
• financial harm
• emotional difficulties
• poor work or school performance
• poor mental and physical health
• higher rates of depression and substance abuse

Strong regulation is important, but it cannot be effective at reducing harm unless accompanied by equally robust prevention, education, treatment, recovery and research.

NCPG recommends addressing concerns around loot boxes and addiction with a multi-layered approach to users, parents, and communities to ensure an appropriate range of protections is put into place for youth and other vulnerable populations.

Key initiatives should include:
• creating better informed consumers
• preventing gambling-related problems
• encouraging treatment-seeking
• supporting recovery
• increasing research to enable evidence-based solutions

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