A B.C. researcher is raising concerns about an increasingly popular feature of video games that he says could be helping create a new generation of gamblers.
Psychology professor Luke Clark, director of UBC’s Centre of Gambling Research, presented findings from a new study on effects of so-called “loot boxes” at the B.C. Lottery Corporation’s New Horizons in Responsible Gambling conference on Tuesday.
Loot boxes are mystery boxes within a game that, when opened, pay out a randomized prize. Often gamers need to pay to access them, and the prize could be a valuable in-game item or character, or more often a low-value or duplicate item.
They’re present in a wide range of modern games, from free mobile apps to big name platform titles like Electronic Arts’ FIFA franchise.
“A number of countries and jurisdictions around the world have been concerned that loot boxes really represent a disguised form of gambling,” Clark told Global News.
“Researchers have seen this link in past research, a correlation between higher levels of spending on loot boxes and higher symptoms of problem gambling, but until now we haven’t really understood the cause and effect behind that relationships.”
Clark’s team set out to better understand the relationship between loot boxes and gambling psychology. In particular, they were interested in trying to understand if young people who were exposed to randomized rewards in games were more likely to start gambling, or whether adults who are experienced with gamblers were being drawn to loot boxes within games.
The researchers surveyed more than 400 regular gamers, aged 18 to 24, who were not involved in gambling, and followed up with them six months later to see if any had started gambling.
The results, he said, were concerning.
“We can see that clear migration effect, the people who are spending more on loot boxes are more likely to initiate gambling over that follow up period. And that link is really specific to the randomized micro transactions, the loot boxes,” he said.
“That’s got a lot of implications for age restrictions around that feature, given that gambling is an age-restricted activity.”
Some countries have already taken regulatory steps on the issue.
Earlier this week, an Austrian court ruled that the loot boxes in the FIFA game are a form of gambling.
In Canada, a B.C. law firm has filed multiple class action lawsuits against several video game companies, alleging loot boxes are unlicensed, illegal gaming systems in violation of the Criminal Code of Canada.
At least one such suit has been settled out of court.
And connections between the gaming and gambling world have begun to manifest themselves in other ways, as well.
Streaming platform Twitch, which rose to prominence as a place for gamers to broadcast their activities, has become an increasingly popular place for people to watch gambling.
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Raymond Wu, a UBC graduate student in cognitive sciences has been studying that link, and said despite efforts by Twitch to crack down on gambling streams, they continue to attract large audiences.
“Gambling is still one of the top categories on Twitch,” he said. “In fact, it’s the top one per cent most popular.”
Wu ran a pair of studies aiming to identify the characteristics of gamblers who watch others compete online, and said the results raised concerns of their own.
“Gambling stream viewers tended to be young men who were more vulnerable to gambling problems,” he said.
“This is concerning because when gamblers aren’t out there and gambling, if they’re watching the streams the cravings that are triggered from these might push them to go and gamble.”
Both researchers say the studies show the need for better public education about the potential for addiction and problem gambling, along with a role for parents in keeping a close eye on their kids online activities.