Who Gives a Loot?

By: Bruce Jones

When it comes to my work in gambling treatment, we’ve seen quite a bit of change over the last several years. In this decade alone, casinos and racinos came to town, daily fantasy sports were born and many states have legalized sports betting, with Ohio not far behind.

I’m often asked: “what’s next?” What’s the new frontier in the gambling world?

That question, however, might be flawed. For it might not be how gambling evolves, but rather how other activities evolve into gambling. Take video games for example…

Loot boxes, according to industry research, generated as much as $30 billion for video game companies in 2018 alone. Another study suggests this revenue was driven, at least in part, by gambling problems amongst gamers.

So what, exactly are these mysterious boxes? Do they constitute gambling? Where did they come from? And what’s being done to protect those at risk?

For starters, they are, in fact, a mystery on purpose. Loot boxes are items in video games that are often paid for with real-world money, but which contain randomized contents used in the game itself (think weapons or body armor).

Research shows there is a reliable correlation between loot box spending and problem gambling severity. In other words, the more money gamers spend on loot boxes, the more severe their problem gambling tends to be.

“The relationship seen here was neither small, nor trivial. It was stronger than previously observed relationships between problem gambling and factors like alcohol abuse, drug use, and depression,” said University of York’s David Zendle, a leading computer science researcher. “Spending money on loot boxes is linked to problem gambling.”

How else do we know there’s a link to problem gambling? Well, just listen to the major players.

“The game industry appears to be trying to get in front of possible regulation by embracing more transparency in loot boxes,” notes industry publication PCGamer. “Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo recently agreed to start publishing loot box odds in all their games by the end of 2020.”

If publishing odds isn’t admitting it’s gambling, I don’t know what is.

Likewise, while many players may never invest real-world money in a loot-box system, such addictive systems do bring large monetary investments from a select few players. In all, it’s a structure similar to what we see in the problem gambling world, where roughly 10% are “at-risk” and only 1-2% meet the disorder criteria.

Forms of loot boxes first appeared games some 15 years ago, but really became a trend in 2016-17. By the end of 2017, some developers began to pull loot boxes from their games because of continued negative reactions.

Last year, The New York Times examined bills forming in various state legislatures, noting that proponents compared their products to collectible toys and sports cards and cited cases from the 1990s in their defense. This, of course, ignores the digital set-up of the loot box, which one state senator called “rapid & immediate”—again cues associated more with pulling the lever of a slot machine than opening a pack of Topps with a stick of bubble gum inside.

So, if left to the industry to simply self-regulate, the obvious outcome will be less regulation and more defensive statements about how “loot boxes do not constitute gambling.”

The real solution will be one that calls on everyone, from elected officials, to gamer parents, to the gaming industry, and even to addiction specialists like me to take an active role:

  • Legislation that specifically targets “microtransactions” in video games
  • Parental controls that one needs to opt out of, instead of an opt-in
  • Further study/investigation that includes (but is not necessary led by) the industry
  • A portion of loot box proceeds going back to addiction treatment

Until all of these parties take a seat at the table, the addicted gambler/gamer is left playing solo. And for too many, this means game over when it comes to controlling their addiction.

About the Author

Bruce Jones

Administrative Coordinator LSW, LCDC III, NCGC II

Bruce is a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) and a Nationally-Certified Gambling Counselor Level II who has worked for Maryhaven since 2000. He saw the need for gambling services in Central Ohio in 2009 and asked Maryhaven to apply for a private grant from the Columbus Foundation to target help to those struggling with gambling addiction. The state then supplied funding after his vision was verified with the amount of clients seeking services that first year and Bruce has been working with individuals, family members, and communities ever since.

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