(Loot) boxing clever? Has child and adolescent problem gambling really risen in the UK?
A couple of months ago, teenage gambling was grabbing the media headlines. The UK Gambling Commission published its annual statistics showing that based on a self-report survey of 2865 children and adolescents aged 11-16 year-olds, that the prevalence of problem gambling had risen to 1.7% (2% for boys and 1.3% for girls) compared to 0.4% in 2016 and 0.9% in 2017. This lead to predictable headlines such as “Number of child gamblers quadruples in just two years”.
I’ve been researching adolescent gambling for over three decades and was the topic for my first two books in 1995 and 2002. While the figures were concerning, the good news is that the prevalence of adolescent problem gambling has been on the decline in the UK over the past 20 years. For instance, the prevalence of adolescent problem gambling back in 2000 was approximately 5% but by 2016 was less than one-tenth of that. The rise over the past two years is a potential worry although the Gambling Commission’s ‘technical annex’ report about the methodology used to collect the data for the latest survey did suggest that one of the main reasons for the significant increase in problem gambling was likely due to a change in the way data were collected.
In short, the filtering questions in the latest study were changed (so that they more matched the adult gambling prevalence surveys that are carried out) which lead to a doubling of teenagers completing the problem gambling screen that was used to assess problem gambling (18% completing the problem gambling screen in 2017 compared to 34% in 2018). However, it is still worth noting that using the same methodology, there was more than a doubling of adolescent problem gambling from 2016 to 2017 (0.4% to 0.9%).
If there has been a genuine increase in adolescent problem gambling over the past couple of years, I think one of the main factors in this is the playing of simulated gambling games (or gambling-like activities such as the buying of loot boxes) in video games. The Gambling Commission’s report noted that 13% had played gambling-style games online, and that 31% had accessed loot boxes in a videogame or app, to try to acquire in-game items.
The buying of loot boxes takes place within online videogames and are (in essence) virtual games of chance. Players use real money to buy virtual in-game items and can redeem such items by buying keys to open the boxes where they receive a chance selection of further virtual items. Other types of equivalent in-game virtual assets that can be bought include crates, cases, chests, bundles, and card packs. The virtual items that can be ‘won’ can comprise basic customization (i.e., cosmetic) options for a player’s in-game character (avatar) to in-game assets that can help players progress more effectively in the game (e.g., gameplay improvement items such as weapons, armour). All players hope that they can win ‘rare’ items and are often encouraged to spend more money to do so because the chances of winning such items are minimal. Many popular videogames now feature loot boxes and these require the paying of real money in exchange for a completely random in-game item.
At present, the UK Gambling Commission does not consider loot boxes as a form of gambling because (they claim) the in-game items have no real-life value outside of the game. However, this is not the case because there are many websites that allow players to trade in-game items and/or virtual currency for real money. The Gambling Commission appears to acknowledge this point and claim that the buying of in-game loot boxes (and their equivalents) are not gambling but, if third party sites become involved (by allowing the buying and selling of in-game items), the activity does become a form of gambling. Personally, I view the buying of loot boxes as a form of gambling, particularly because the ‘prizes’ won are (in financial terms) often a lot less than that of the price paid.
A study published in the journal PLoS ONE claimed they had evidence for a link between the amount that videogame players spent on loot boxes and problem gambling severity in a large survey of 7422 gamers. The paper concluded that:
“This link was stronger than a link between problem gambling and buying other in-game items with real-world money…suggesting that the gambling-like features of loot boxes are specifically responsible for the observed relationship between problem gambling and spending on loot boxes”
However, this evidence is correlational not causal. I’ve also cited empirical research in my academic papers that engaging in simulated gambling within videogames is a risk factor for both gambling with real money and problem gambling. In November 2018, the Mail on Sunday (MoS) published some of my concerns after they interviewed me about the issue of simulated gambling in online videogames. Although no real money is staked, I have argued that such activities normalize gambling for children and that such activities behaviourally condition children towards gambling.
The MoS claimed that I said that children should be banned from playing online games such as Candy Crush. What I actually said was that children should be prohibited from engaging in gambling simulations within videogames. Candy Crush now features a gambling-type element in the form of a ‘wheel of fortune’ type game (which has also been used in other videogames like Runescape and which I have also argued are gambling when players have to pay to spin the wheel) and that children should be prohibited from accessing such gambling-like features. There is no evidence that the playing of Candy Crush causes problematic behaviour but the playing of simulated gambling-type games has been shown to be a risk factor for problem gambling among adolescents.
The question as to whether there has been a genuine increase in problem gambling among children and adolescents cannot be answered from the Gambling Commission’s latest report but based on other pieces of research there does appear to have been a slight rise over the past couple of years.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Calado, F., Alexandre, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Prevalence of adolescent problem gambling: A systematic review of recent research. Journal of Gambling Studies, 33, 397-424.
Calado, F. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Problem gambling worldwide: An update of empirical research (2000-2015). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5, 592–613.
Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Gambling and Gaming Addictions in Adolescence. Leicester: British Psychological Society/Blackwells.
Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Adolescent gambling: Risk factors and implications for prevention, intervention, and treatment. In D. Romer (Ed.), Reducing Adolescent Risk: Toward An Integrated Approach (pp. 223-238). London: Sage.
Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Adolescent gambling in Great Britain. Education Today: Quarterly Journal of the College of Teachers. 58(1), 7-11.
Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Adolescent gambling. In B. Bradford Brown & Mitch Prinstein (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence (Volume 3) (pp.11-20). San Diego: Academic Press.
Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent gambling via social networking sites: A brief overview. Education and Health, 31, 84-87.
Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Is the buying of loot boxes in videogames a form of gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review, 22(1), 52-54.
Griffiths, M.D. & King, R. (2015). Are mini-games within RuneScape gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 64-643.
Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2010). Adolescent gambling on the Internet: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 59-75.
Posted on February 28, 2019, in Addiction, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Games, I.T., Internet gambling, Online addictions, Online gambling, Problem gamblng, Psychology, Technological addiction, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged Adolescent gambling, Bundles, Card packs, Chests, Crates, Gambling, Gaming, In-game items, Loot boxes, Online gaming, Problem gambling, Slot machines, Video games, Virtual assets. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.