(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.
(Please note that a different version of this article was first published in The Conversation).
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.
Eyes on the prize: Is the buying of loot boxes in videogames a form of gambling?
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, armor). 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 (or equivalents) including Overwatch, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Star Wars Battlefront 2, FIFA Ultimate Team, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Fortress 2, Injustice 2, Lawbreakers, Forza Motorsport 7, and For Honor. In short, all of these require the paying of real money in exchange for a completely random in-game item. In an interview with Eurogamer, psychologist Jamie Madigan said:
“Whenever you open [a loot box], you may get something awesome (or you may get trash). This randomness taps into some of the very fundamental ways our brains work when trying to predict whether or not a good thing will happen. We are particularly excited by unexpected pleasures like a patch of wild berries or an epic skin for our character. This is because our brains are trying to pay attention to and trying to figure out such awesome rewards. But unlike in the real world, these rewards can be completely random (or close enough not to matter) and we can’t predict randomness. But the reward system in your brain doesn’t know that. Buying [loot boxes] puts them into the same category of packs of Pokémon cards or baseball cards. Unlike gambling in a casino, you’re going to get something out of that pack. Maybe just not the thing you wanted”.
Although there are many definitions in many disciplines defining gambling, there are a number of common elements that occur in the majority of gambling instances that distinguish ‘true’ gambling from mere risk-taking. These include: (i) the exchange is determined by a future event, which at the time of staking money (or something of financial value) the outcome is unknown, (ii) the result is determined (at least partly or wholly) by chance, (iii) the re-allocation of wealth (i.e., the exchange of money [or something of financial value] usually without the introduction of productive work on either side, and (iv) losses incurred can be avoided by simply not taking part in the activity in the first place. Added to this it could be argued that the money or prize to be won should be of greater financial value than the money staked in the first place. Based on these elements, the buying of loot boxes (or equivalents) would be classed as a form of gambling, as would other activities such as the Treasure Hunter and Squeal of Fortune games within the Runescape videogame and online penny auctions (which I have argued in previous papers – see ‘Further reading’).
In the UK Gambling Commission’s most recent (March 2017) position paper on virtual currencies and social casino gambling noted:
“One commonly used method for players to acquire in-game items is through the purchase of keys from the games publisher to unlock ‘crates’, ‘cases’ or ‘bundles’ which contain an unknown quantity and value of in-game items as a prize. The payment of a stake (key) for the opportunity to win a prize (in-game items) determined (or presented as determined) at random bears a close resemblance, for instance, to the playing of a gaming machine. Where there are readily accessible opportunities to cash in or exchange those awarded in-game items for money or money’s worth those elements of the game are likely to be considered licensable gambling activities [Section 3.17]…Additional consumer protection in the form of gambling regulation, is required in circumstances where players are being incentivised to participate in gambling style activities through the provision of prizes of money or money’s worth. Where prizes are successfully restricted for use solely within the game, such in-game features would not be licensable gambling, notwithstanding the elements of expenditure and chance [Section 3.18]”.
Consequently, 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 appear 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. As Vic Hood (in a 2017 article in Eurogamer) rightly notes, this appears to be a case of the law struggling to keep pace with technology. There are also issues surrounding age limits and whether games that offer loot boxes (or equivalents) should be restricted to those over the age of 18 years.
Predictably, those in the videogame industry do not view the buying of loot boxes as gambling either. For instance, Dirk Bosmans (from PEGI [Pan European Game Information], the European-based videogame rating organization) stated in a recent interview with Eurogamer that:
“Loot crates are currently not considered gambling: you always get something when you purchase them, even if it’s not what you hoped for. For that reason, a loot crate system does not trigger the gambling content descriptor. If something is considered gambling, it needs to follow a very specific set of legislation, which has all kinds of practical consequences for the company that runs it. Therefore, the games that get a PEGI gambling content descriptor either contain content that simulates what is considered gambling or they contain actual gambling with cash payouts. If PEGI would label something as gambling while it is not considered as such from a legal point of view, it would mostly create confusion. We are always monitoring such developments and mapping consumer complaints. We see a growing need for information about specific features in games and apps (social interaction, data sharing, digital purchases), but the challenge is that such features are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in the market, yet they still come in very different shapes and sizes.”
This appears somewhat hardline given that PEGI’s descriptor of gambling content is used whenever any videogame “teaches or encourages” gambling. Such a descriptor would arguably cover gambling-like games or activities and the buying of loot boxes is ‘gambling-like’ at the very least. The same stance has been taken by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) which rates videogames in Canada and the USA. A spokesman for the ESRB told Eurogamer that:
“ESRB does not consider [the buying of loot boxes] to be gambling because the player uses real money to pay for and obtain in-game content. The player is always guaranteed to receive something – even if the player doesn’t want what is received. Think of it like opening a pack of collectible cards: sometimes you’ll get a brand new, rare card, but other times you’ll get a pack full of cards you already have. That said, ESRB does disclose gambling content should it be present in a game via one of two content descriptors: Simulated Gambling (player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency) and Real Gambling (player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency). Neither of these apply to loot boxes and similar mechanics.”
At present, there are a number of countries (mainly in South East Asia such as China and Japan) who do view the buying of loot boxes as a form of gambling and have incorporated such activities into their gambling regulation. However, most countries have either not considered regulating the buying of loot boxes at all, or (like the UK) have ruled out that buying loot boxes does not currently meet their regulatory definition of gambling. Although there has been little published in academic journals on loot boxes, a number of articles in the trade press have claimed that the buying of loot boxes can be problematic and/or addictive because they are designed using highly similar reward schedules to those used in the design of slot machines. This is something that have also pointed out in relation to similar activities to the buying of loot boxes where individuals play for points rather than money. 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. Obviously I am out of step in relation to the regulators in my own country, but if third party websites continue to host services where in-game virtual items can be bought and sold, the activity definitely constitutes a form of gambling by almost any definition of gambling currently used in the field of social sciences.
(N.B. This article uses material from a paper I recently published in Gaming Law Review)
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Alexandra, H. (2017). Loot boxes are designed to exploit us. Kotaku, October 13. https://kotaku.com/loot-boxes-are-designed-to-exploit-us-1819457592
Avard, A (2017). Video games have a loot box fetish, and it’s starting to harm the way we play. Games Radar, October 10. Located at: http://www.gamesradar.com/loot-boxes-shadow-of-war/
Gambling Commission (2017). Virtual currencies, esports and social casino gaming – position paper. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.
Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Adolescent gambling and gambling-type games on social networking sites: Issues, concerns, and recommendations. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 33(2), 31-37.
Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Is the buying of loot boxes in videogames a form of gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review, 22(1), 52-54.
Griffiths, M.D. & Carran, M. (2015). Are online penny auctions a form of gambling? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 190-196.
Griffiths, M.D. & King, R. (2015). Are mini-games within RuneScape gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 64-643.
Hood, V. (2017). Are loot boxes gambling? Eurogamer, October 12. Located at: Located at: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-10-11-are-loot-boxes-gambling
Lawrence, N, (2017). The troubling psychology of pay-to-loot systems. IGN, April 23. Located at: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/04/24/the-troubling-psychology-of-pay-to-loot-systems
Perks, M. (2016). Limited edition loot boxes: Problematic gambling and monetization. Cube, October 11. Located at: https://medium.com/the-cube/limited-edition-loot-boxes-problematic-gambling-and-monetization-756819f2c54f
Wikipedia (2017). Loot box (2017). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loot_box
Wiltshire, W. (2017). Behind the addictive psychology and seductive art of loot boxes. PC Gamer, September 29. Located at: http://www.pcgamer.com/behind-the-addictive-psychology-and-seductive-art-of-loot-boxes/
Game on: A brief look at gambling on eSports
Like daily fantasy sports, betting on eSports (i.e., professional video gaming) has increased in popularity over the last few years and has given rise to allegations of unregulated and underage gambling. The eSports market is large. According to a 2016 report by Superdata, professional eSports is growing exponentially and is worth an estimated $612 (US) million a year. Furthermore, Eilers and Krejcik Gaming estimate that real money betting on eSports betting will reach $10 billion (US) by 2020. The professionalization and sportification of this entertainment form has brought sports-world elements to it: stadium-like facilities, cheering stands, sponsors, big rewards, and competition. Instant replays, jumbotrons (i.e., super-huge television screens), and referees add to the sport dramatisation. In some notorious cases, prizes have gone beyond the $10 million [US] threshold in a packed arena housing 73,000 fans. According to by John McMullan and Delthia Miller in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Gambling Issues, sportification is the process of incorporating the logics of sport to non-sporting contexts (e.g., poker, eSports. This can materialise in many ways but most commonly occurs when (i) other industries capitalise on the positive attributes of sport (e.g., popularity, engagement, or sanity and health inferences); and (ii) non-sport fields try to increase the entertainment and playability of their products and their association with joy and excitement.
Twitch, an online platform that streams live video gaming, informs its’ advertisers that it has 100 million monthly viewers, who watch for an average of 106 minutes a day. Betting on eSports presents new challenges. As a news report in Bloomberg news observed in relation to betting on the game Counterstrike: Global Offensive (CSGO):
“Gambling – licensed, regulated, and by adults – is generally accepted in eSports. There is growing concern, though, that teenagers are being attracted to different forms of betting facilitated by third-party providers. One such platform is CSGO Lounge (an independent site not affiliated with Valve Software, which develops the game itself). The site allows spectators to bet in-game add-ons known as skins – weapons, tools and the like – on the results of matches. Not all skins are created equal, and the rarity of some means they can cost hundreds of real dollars on marketplace sites like SkinXchange.com. The temptation is too much for some”.
Put simply, skin gambling is the use of virtual goods and items (typically cosmetic elements that have no direct influence on gameplay) as virtual currency to bet on the outcome of professional matches. The Bloomberg article also claims on the basis of interviews with industry insiders that underage skin gambling is a “huge problem”. Justin Carlson (lead developer of SkinXchange) claims there are “countless” parents whose children have used their credit cards without their knowledge to buy skins and bet on gaming on other sites. Although anecdotal, Carlson claims that some minors have “racked up hundreds or thousands of dollars in skins on ‘SkinXchange’ just to lose them all on some betting or jackpot site”. It’s clear that people trading skins in eSports has grown over the last few years and various regulators around the world – such as the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) – are considering regulation and says it is an “emerging product” and an “area for continuing future focus”. More specifically, the UKGC’s 2016 Annual Report notes:
“The growing market in esports and computer gaming has scope to present issues for regulation and player protection – issues which are being examined by gambling regulators in other international markets…These issues range from the emergence of real money esports betting markets, to trading in-game items which blur the lines between gambling and social gaming. Our focus will be to understand developments, including engaging with key stakeholders, and we will work wherever we can to ensure the risks associated with these, particularly to children and young people, are minimised”.
One of the complicating factors for eSports gambling is that while cash is the currency for many gamblers, there is a growing trend towards the use of virtual currencies, or ‘in-game items’ which, according to the UKGC, can be “won, traded, sold or used as virtual currency to gamble with and converted into money or money’s worth”. These, according to the UKGC, “include digital commodities (such as ‘skins’) which can be won or purchased within the confines of computer games and can then be used as a form of virtual currency on a growing number of gambling websites”. No academic research has examined underage skin gambling but this is an issue that is unlikely to diminish over the coming years.
It is also worth noting that this massive interest in eSports followed by a massive audience has led most major betting operators to include eSports in their daily gambling offer. However, the singularities of eSports market pose new challenges that conventional online betting sites struggle to address. Suraj Gosai, co-founder of Blinkpool, an eSports dedicated betting platform, laid out two main problems: in-play betting limitations and odds algorithmic programming. For in-play betting to be viable, companies need to get access to reliable, instantaneous, and unambiguous data that can settle bets and separate winners from losers. Data companies like Perform do that in sport, and betting operators rely on their data to offer in-play action to gamblers. The problem in eSports is that actions are not as quantified and standardised as in real-life sports. To counteract that, Blinkpool created a computer vision technology that extracts data from real-time action and promotes hyper-contextual opportunities, that is, 10- to 45-second in-play betting mini-markets concerning very specific developments in the narrative of the games.
Odds programming in sports betting is fundamentally based on historical data from hundreds of thousands of games, from which each factor (home advantage, table position, head-to-head, etc.) is weighted in to determine the probability of an event occurring. In the fixed-odds betting market, the bookmaker makes available to bettors that probability plus a benefit margin. When placing a bet, an individual bets against the probability that the house has predicted. This is not yet feasible in eSports because the historical data are scarce and the modelling is complex. Companies are circumventing this problem by offering exchange betting rather than fixed-odds. This method comprises peer betting, that is, bettors do not bet against the house but between one another. This way, the house gets a commission from winning bets and operates a much less risky business.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Bracken, G. (2016). We hope to be the home of eSports betting. Gambling Insider. Available from: https://www.gamblinginsider.com/in-depth/1909/we-hope-to-be-the-home-of-esports-betting
Gambling Commission (2015). Explaining our approach to social gaming. Located at: http://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/Gambling-data-analysis/Social-media/Explaining-our-approach-to-social-gaming.aspx
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Superdata (2016). eSports Market Report. Available at: https://www.superdataresearch.com/market-data/esports-market-brief/
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Wood, J. (2016). UK Gambling Commission: We’ll work to minimize risks from emerging esports betting markets. Esports Betting Report, July 19. Available at: http://www.esportsbettingreport.com/uk-regulators-address-esports-betting/