The risky use of video game ‘loot boxes’ is associated with problematic gambling behaviors

Engagement with “loot boxes” — randomly generated prizes of undisclosed value that can be attained or purchased within a game — is correlated with gambling beliefs and problematic gambling behavior in adult gamers, according to a study published in Addictive Behaviors.

“Our focus upon loot boxes stems from a broader interest in the ‘gamblification’ of video games, or when video games acquire traits similar to gambling,” said study author Gabriel Brooks, a PhD student at the Centre for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia.

Loot boxes began appearing in video games in the mid-2000s and have grown in popularity since. In some cases, players earn them as rewards for game play, but players are often encouraged to buy them using real or virtual currency.

In two surveys — one of 144 adults recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk and another of 113 undergraduates — the researcher found that approximately half of each sample reported buying loot boxes in video games. Most participants also viewed loot boxes as a form of gambling.

The researchers found excessive engagement with loot boxes was associated with measures of problem gambling, supporting the view that loot boxes are a ‘gamblified’ feature of modern video games.

“Our study demonstrates that the risky use of loot boxes (e.g., a preoccupation with them, ‘chasing’ desired items, and difficulty reducing or stopping use) is moderately associated with problematic gambling behaviors and gambling-related cognitive bias. Moreover, these associations appear to be stronger than the association between risky loot box use and a typical measure of problematic gaming,” Brooks told PsyPost.

The results are in line with previous research, which found that there is a significant relationship between problematic gambling behaviors and spending money on loot boxes.

But the new study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“Our study is survey based, meaning we cannot be certain about the specific nature the relationship between risky loot box use and problematic gambling cognitions and behaviors. Some equally likely interpretations include the possibility that individuals who exhibit problematic gambling behaviors are particularly vulnerable to this feature, or that loot boxes could predispose individuals toward problematic gambling behavior,” Brooks explained.

“Our study also focuses upon adult gamers. Given the prevalence of video game use among children and adolescents, we would like to see future work include these populations.”

“Our study also conducts some preliminary investigations regarding the impact of ‘item marketplaces’, where individuals may sell the items they receive from loot boxes for cash,” Brooks added. “Although our data on this topic was coarse, we found that individuals who preferred to open loot boxes in games where a marketplace was available were more likely to evaluate received items through a monetary lens.”

The study, “Associations between loot box use, problematic gaming and gambling, and gambling-related cognitions“, was authored by Gabriel A. Brooks and Luke Clark.