Problematic Play: Video Games and the Path to Problem Gambling

By: Colin Baumgartner

Video games are often linked to creative thinking and problem solving in young people. And as more games increase their interactivity, they simultaneously increase virtual social connections, especially beneficial during the pandemic.

But not all interactivity in the gaming world is positive. For example, we’ve written in this space previously about loot boxes, the mystery contents in a video game paid for with real money, generating tens of billions of dollars annually for the video game industry.

We’ve also written about the connections between loot boxes, problem gambling and gaming disorder, the latter of which was recognized by the World Health Organization three years ago and has only gotten worse in the past year.

But many questions remain unanswered. How prevalent is problem gaming? How joined are gaming and gambling? Is it only impacting young people? What are the treatment options?

“So often, it’s the parents that don’t realize the depth of it,” says Bruce Jones, administrative coordinator for Maryhaven’s gambling program. He estimates that roughly one-third of parents he talks to across all of Maryhaven’s various programs say their kids are playing too many games.

From there, Jones says, it’s not a big jump to loot box spending. One new study from two universities in the UK found that of the 93% of children who play video games, up to 40% opened loot boxes. That means roughly 40% of children are being introduced to a form of gambling, often without the child, or their parents, realizing it.

“Simply put, we’re breeding young gamblers,” says Jones.

He recalls one recent case where a grandparent loaned a credit card to their grandchild for use in a video game, unbeknownst to mom or dad. After a considerable debt, the parents finally caught wind and had to step in.

“Because loot boxes are often geared to younger gamers, it’s common for parents to have to bail their kids out like that,” Jones says. “There’s no exclusion program for children or problem gamers and gamblers. They’ll just see the option to buy that loot box over and over again.”

Government officials in the UK are considering whether gambling laws should cover loot boxes. That could eventually pave the way for a mandatory exclusion program for young gamers and/or a voluntary one for those struggling with addiction (similar to the Voluntary Exclusion Program at casinos). Notably, however, such conversations in the US government are much further behind their British counterparts.

The UK paper referenced earlier concluded that 5% of loot box buyers generate about 50% of the revenue AND that one-third of them are already problem gamblers. While the focus has been on youth, they are not the only ones influenced by gamblified gaming.

“Loot boxes are often in mobile games that these kids’ parents are playing,” Jones notes. “And grandparents, too. At this point, it’s seeped into all types of games.”

But both the UK study and Jones agree that young men tend to be the biggest loot box users. The study found a correlation between lower education levels as well.

In the end, Jones says gaming disorder and loot box overspending is a problem that can’t be solved until it is more regularly identified.

“There are great resources available to people, but like all other behavioral addictions, the first step is recognition,” he says. “When they’ve lost a paycheck or care so much about status in the game, at the expense of other things in their life—that’s the same thing as gambling.”

Jones says harm reduction, such as not playing certain games or unlinking credit cards you can’t pay for items in-game, might work for some. Yet others may require a more in depth solution like motivational interviewing or cognitive behavioral therapy.

“What it comes down to is are you spending too much time, or too much energy or too much money on it?” Jones says. “Those are easy, yet self-reflective questions that a parent can ask their child. And maybe ask themselves once in a while too.”

About the Author

Colin Baumgartner

Blogger for Maryhaven

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