Bright lights and color, loud sounds, dopamine-releasing outcomes — all of these and more are characteristic of both gaming and gambling. We talk a lot in society about gambling being addictive, but we don’t seem to have the same depth of conversation around gaming, especially when it comes to children. But the fact of the matter is, gaming is just as addicting as gambling. Studies have shown that gaming addictions easily progress into gambling addictions, especially games with simulated gambling (like online social casino games). Basically, players who play games with gambling elements are more likely to gamble IRL, as are players who already have “problematic” gaming habits.

You might think that the two are very different, because gaming relies on skill whereas gambling relies on chance. But here’s where the main issue arises — loot boxes.

A loot box in a video game is anything that the player purchases with real-world money to improve their gaming experience, whether it’s gear upgrades, character enhancements, extra lives — all of which are randomized within the game. Suddenly, the outcome of the game or your experience within the game isn’t just based on your personal skill, but how much money you’re spending on chance. You’ve now turned a simple game into a game with a massive gambling component.

Imagine playing a game and stumbling upon a locked chest full of rewards. You want those rewards, but have to shell out to open the chest. And it’s so easy, too. On your phone, a simple press of a button charges the credit card on file, making it super simple for children who play these games to rack up charges without their parents even knowing until they get the bill at the end of the month. And it’s definitely a feature that children are affected by — almost 40% of children who play online games use loot boxes.

Studies have shown that loot boxes in particular have direct links to gambling and gambling addiction. A report that looked into 13 studies on the issue concluded that loot boxes “were ‘structurally and psychologically akin’ to gambling.” Some countries, like Belgium, have classified loot boxes as gambling products, and the UK is working towards the same classifications in their own laws.

Mobile and online games are incentivized to keep offering loot boxes because it’s how they make their money. Most of these games are offered for free, making them seem innocent enough to a parent whose child wants to play a game on their iPad, or an adult who wants something to do with their phone while binging Netflix. But because of these gambling components, these games are able to offer their services for free because the loot boxes more than make up for the cost of creating the game. There’s even a term for certain people, called “whales,” that spend so much money that they make up for those who spend nothing. In the UK, only about 5% of loot box users generate 50% of the 700 million-dollar loot box market.

We have to be more conscious about the games that we play, or allow our children to play. Even if they seem innocuous, there are some serious repercussions lying just under the surface. One way to help change this is to simply have conversations about it. A lot of people don’t understand the psychology behind addictive gaming or how it leads to gambling problems. After all, how easy is it to say, “oh, I’ll pay 99 cents to get past this puzzle.” Heck, I’ve done it before. We just need to be aware of how we’re playing, and make sure we’re keeping an eye on our habits before they spiral into something problematic.

Tagged: Perspective