Are Loot Boxes Gambling and Therefore Addictive?

You may have heard the term “loot boxes” around your household of late. The video gaming concept has certainly been in the news across the continent and world, and not to the benefit of gaming providers. At the end of 2023, an Arkansas family filed a lawsuit against Microsoft, EA, Activision, and other video game companies for enabling adolescent gaming addiction via the integration of loot boxes in the gaming environment. Earlier in the same year, EA in Canada was taken to court for using loot boxes to engage in “unlawful gaming or gambling” which is in breach of multiple offenses in Part Seven of the Criminal Code. The judge ruled that EA’s loot boxes do not constitute illegal gambling, but they may fall under “deceptive practices”.

What are loot boxes, exactly? They are mystery bundles of virtual items found in many video game environments. They can be won by a gamer as a reward and/or can be purchased with real money. They are integrated in many common games, including (but not exclusive to) Apex legends, FIFA, Mario Kart Tour, Overwatch, Star Wars Battlefront 2, Roblox, and more. They are often called by different names depending on the game, even though the premise is identical.

The lawsuits above (and likely more to come) allege that gaming manufacturers are deliberately designing games using loot boxes to foster addiction. Whether or not there is intent to leverage the concept to hook developing minds (or adults for that matter) it is important to ask – are loot boxes gambling? Because if they are in any form, parents of gamers and gamers alike need to be aware of the risks.

How Video Game Loot Boxes May be Considered a Form of Gambling That Places Vulnerable Individuals at Risk

Similar Reward Structure and Chemical Response

“On reforming the Gambling Act 2005, the government concluded that it ‘does not intend to amend or extend the scope of gambling regulation to cover loot boxes at this time’. It said legislative changes could have ‘significant implementation challenges and risks of unintended consequences’. The government believed that, although loot boxes had some similarities with gambling, an important distinction was the ability to ‘cash out rewards’. The government said that a loot box prize ‘does not normally have real world monetary value outside of the game’.”

House of Lords Library | UK Parliament, October 2022

In 2022, there was a call for the UK to reform the Gambling Act to include video game loot boxes in gambling regulation. It didn’t come to pass because essentially, gaming platforms don’t allow users to “cash out rewards”. This distinction has been used as a key defense here in North America as well. To reiterate – the concept of gaming operators taking player money in exchange for an unknown rewards is not considered gambling, because the player doesn’t have the potential to get money back. Extrapolate from that what you will.

In a recent article titled “Can You Gamble Without Money? It’s a Dangerous Question to Ask” it was confirmed that no-money gaming has relatively the same chemical reaction in the brain as gambling. The similar reward structure (to gambling) of loot box games is problematic because an engaged player’s brain and body become accustomed to this psychological and physiological response of dopamine release. From this, habitual behavior can be formed. Over time, the dopamine release becomes dulled, and players need to play more or seek out other activities that deliver the same reward structure – such as online gambling. If someone is predisposed to developing gambling disorder, or their decision making abilities are not yet mature, engaging in video games with loot boxes could be considered an elevated risk activity.

What Concerned Parents Need to Do

This move will make you unpopular with your kids at first, but you will need to monitor their games for loot box concepts, and remove the respective games/apps from the household’s gaming system and mobile devices. Remember that the frontal lobe isn’t fully developed in adolescence. If youth play games with built-in gambling elements during this phase, their brain development can be effected and they may become predisposed to problematic gambling behavior in the future. America is already in the middle of a teenage gambling crisis – the last thing our nation’s youth needs is another gateway.

If you’re already concerned that your child/teen struggles with gaming addiction, reach out to Kindbridge to discuss online therapy for families.

What Adult Gamers Need to Do

If you are predisposed to developing gambling disorder, stay away from gaming platforms that use loot boxes. Vulnerable populations include those who struggle with one or more of these mental/behavioral health issues. and those ingrained in certain occupations, such as military personnel and elite athletes. If you don’t fit one of these categories but remain concerned about the impact games with loot boxes may have on your behavioral health, take the following quizzes below. If they uncover that you may have a problematic relationship with gambling and/or gaming, shut down game play and seek treatment right away.

What Gaming Manufacturers Need to Do

Some well-known gambling operators have stepped up to show their dedication to being there for customers who are not able to gamble responsibly, beyond the inclusion of Responsible Gambling messaging on their digital properties. For example, BetMGM and DraftKings joined forces with Kindbridge Behavioral Health to create programs for players who may face problem gaming-related challenges, provisioning direct access to counseling and therapy resources. It’s time for gaming manufacturers to do the same. Having a Responsible Gaming footnote on packaging and in digital fine print doesn’t come close to cutting it. If you represent a gaming manufacturer, reach out to Kindbridge to discuss customized options to protect your vulnerable player base.

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