Two large studies have found a link between loot box spending and problem gambling

Many popular games allow people to pay a small fee to obtain a “loot box” containing random selections of virtual in-game items. New research has found that there is a significant relationship between problematic gambling behaviors and spending money on loot boxes.

The findings, which appear in the journal PLOS One, indicate that people who spend more money on loot boxes are also more likely to be unable to keep their gambling habits in check.

“Loot boxes are extremely widespread. A recent analysis we did showed that they may feature in as many as 63% of mobile games. They’re extremely profitable, too: They’re estimated to have perhaps generated as much as $30 billion in revenue in 2018,” said study author David Zendle of York St. John University.

“They’re also highly worrying — there are clear parallels between loot boxes and potentially harmful activities like gambling. Given their prevalence, importance, and the lack of literature on them, I think a good question is ‘Why weren’t more people running these studies?'”

The researchers had 1,172 gamers complete psychological surveys regarding problem gambling and loot box spending.

The participants all reported regularly playing at least of one of ten popular games that feature loot boxes: Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, League of Legends, Hearthstone, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: GO, FIFA 18, Rocket League, DOTA 2, Team Fortress 2, and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege.

“There is a link between loot box spending and problem gambling. However, we’re not sure if this means that loot boxes literally cause problem gambling, or if it means that people who are already problem gamblers spend significantly more money on loot boxes. In either case, though, it doesn’t look socially beneficial.”

On average, the participants reported spending $19.58 on loot boxes in the past month. But some had spent up to $2,300.

The study replicates the finding of previous research conducted by Zendle and published in 2018. That study, which examined 7,422 gamers, found that people with more severe gambling problems tended to spend more on loot boxes.

That research also found that people with more severe gambling problems tended to spend more on other kinds of in-game items — but the relationship was not nearly as strong.

Some researchers have compared loot boxes to a predatory form of psychological ‘entrapment’ where players spend an escalating amount of money because they believe they have invested too much to quit.

But longitudinal research is needed to determine whether loot boxes are directly related to the development of gambling problems.

“Researchers have suggested that loot boxes might create a gateway to problem gambling. We still don’t know if this is true,” Zendle remarked.

The study, “Loot boxes are again linked to problem gambling: Results of a replication study“, was authored by David Zendle and Paul Cairns.