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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

Further reading

Alexandra, H. (2017). Loot boxes are designed to exploit us. Kotaku, October 13.

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:

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:

Lawrence, N, (2017). The troubling psychology of pay-to-loot systems. IGN, April 23. Located at:

Perks, M. (2016). Limited edition loot boxes: Problematic gambling and monetization. Cube, October 11. Located at:

Wikipedia (2017). Loot box (2017). Located at:

Wiltshire, W. (2017). Behind the addictive psychology and seductive art of loot boxes. PC Gamer, September 29. Located at:

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 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

Further reading

Bracken, G. (2016). We hope to be the home of eSports betting. Gambling Insider. Available from:

Gambling Commission (2015). Explaining our approach to social gaming. Located at:

Gambling Commission (2016). Annual Report 2015/16. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.

McMullan, J. L., & Miller, D. (2008). All in! The commercial advertising of offshore gambling on television. Journal of Gambling Issues, 22, 230-251.

Melbourne, K. & Campbell, M. (2015). Professional gaming may have an underage gambling problem. Bloomberg, September 7. Available at:

Superdata (2016). eSports Market Report. Available at:

Wingfield, N. (2014) In e-Sports, video gamers draw real crowds and big money. New York Times, August 30. Available from:

Wood, J. (2016). UK Gambling Commission: We’ll work to minimize risks from emerging esports betting markets. Esports Betting Report, July 19. Available at:

Money for nothing (and your clicks for free?): Why do gamers buy ‘virtual assets’?

Video gaming has evolved from a single-player platform to a multi-player realm where interaction with other players is often a necessity. In order to enter the game, players must first create an avatar, a representation of their self in the game that is used to explore and interact with the virtual environment. When creating an avatar, players can also buy virtual assets to augment and/or enhance their online character. Virtual assets are items or customisations for video game avatars, bases, and characters that are purchased with real money.

In a previous blog, I looked at some of the anecdotal evidence that claimed a few individuals had become ‘addicted’ to buying virtual assets. At the time I wrote that article, there was almost nothing published academically on the psychology of virtual assets and why people bought virtual assets. A few months ago, Jack Cleghorn and I published a qualitative paper in the journal Digital Education Review based on our interviews with gamers that regularly bought virtual assets. Today’s blog looks at some of our findings.

For researchers, the buying of virtual assets provides an opportunity to try and understand why people become so immersed in games and what motivates gamers to spend real money on items that some would consider as having no value. In a multi-player environment, it becomes clear that the avatars seen on screen are graphical representations of someone real and may be part of human desires to be noticed, respected, and interacted with. Furthermore the gamer controlling their avatar has motivations, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Virtual item purchases are therefore likely to impact on a gamer’s psychological wellbeing.

The growing market for virtual items indicates that transactions are becoming commonplace in gaming. The virtual market functions similarly to real markets in that there is demand, fluctuating markets, and profits to be made. The importance of virtual items to some people is illustrated by a divorce claim in a story on Hyped Talk in which a wife made a claim for over half of her husband’s virtual assets. In a different case (outlined in a 2005 issue of The Lawyer), Qiu Chengwei, a middle-aged man killed a fellow gamer over a dispute involving a virtual item. Obviously these cases are extreme but they highlight the fact that virtual items can have both financial and psychological value for gamers.

But why do people buy virtual items? Performance and general quality of an item is seen to be an important motivation whether the item is real or virtual. Online, an appeal to social status may be a better predictor for purchase behaviour than function. However, some claim that appealing to social status has no motivational significance in purchase behaviour. Another unique element of buying virtual items is the potential exclusivity. Exclusive or limited items tend to be unattainable through gameplay and instead must be bought with money. Exclusivity online has been shown to be of importance, and segmentation is a technique used by the games producers that limits certain items to certain classes, levels, or races. This has been shown to stimulate purchase behaviour. The amount of time invested in a game is also key to understanding spending patterns, and gamers will often buy virtual items after a dedicated amount of gameplay has been spent building an avatar.

Naturally, the longer the amounts of time that are spent online and in-game, the more the player emotionally and psychologically invests in the game. The concept of ‘flow’ (formulated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in many papers and books) has been applied to gaming and can involve becoming emotionally attached to a character (in fact I published a paper on this with Damien Hull and Glenn Williams in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions). Flow is the feeling of complete absorption in an activity and affects consciousness and emotions of the individual experiencing it. A key element of feeling ‘flow’ is the experience and perception of the world of the avatar and has been applied to electronic media. The adaptation of ‘flow’ to the virtual world suggests that just like other leisure activities, an individual investing time in an environment where they feel socially accepted can become emotionally attached to their avatar. Gaming has been shown to affect consciousness and emotions of gamers that are both necessary in experiencing ‘flow’. It could be that purchasing of virtual items is also motivated – at least in part – by the feeling of emotional attachment to an avatar.

Gamers are being drawn in to an environment by the appeal of social interaction, manipulation of objects, exploration, and identification with the avatar. To some gamers, the virtual world can takes on more significance than ‘actual’ life and residency in their preferred games is what they consider their actuality. This suggests that the reward of gaming is great, indicating that those individuals who buy virtual items are doing so because they feel involved in an environment that benefits them personally.

Given the lack of empirical research, the qualitative study I published with Jack Cleghorn was based on in-depth interviews with six gamers who all regularly bought in-game virtual assets. We examined the (i) motivations for purchasing virtual items, (ii) psychological impact of purchasing virtual items on self-esteem and confidence, (iii) social benefits of gaming and virtual asset purchasing, (iv) emotional attachment to an avatar, (v) choice of items and customisation of the avatar as a form of self-expression, (v) impulsivity versus thoughtfulness in purchase intentions of virtual items, and (vii) impact of transaction machinery on the ‘game experience’ from a gamer’s perspective.

Using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), the study was exploratory and aimed to understand the psychology underlying purchase intention of virtual items and assets among online gamers. As a result of interviewing the gamers, seven theses emerged: (i) motivation for purchase, (ii) social aspects of the gaming and purchasing, (iii) emotional attachment to the avatar, (iv) psychological reward and impact, (v) self-expression, (vi) ‘stock market gaming’ and gaming culture, and (vii) research/impulse buying. The use of IPA allowed each gamer to share their unique experience of playing and purchase behaviour.

Despite the negative aspects of online gaming, the gamers in our study emphasised a more positive side to buying virtual items and gaming more generally. Item exclusivity and item function were major motivating factors and contributed to an item’s importance in-game. Another key motivation for purchase behaviour was the appeal to social status. Attainment of items demonstrates to others how powerful the gamer is. Naturally, if an item has benefits for the avatar it is more likely that the gamer will spend money to obtain it. Function linked to progression, purchasing items, and buying in-game currency are all sometimes a necessity to progress. Novelty and collectability were also important motivators for some of our gamers. Despite subjective motivations, purchasing virtual items arose out of gaming as a predominant pastime. All of the gamers in our sample were dedicated gamers who spent relatively large amounts of time online and, as perhaps expected, larger gaming commitment to led to purchase behaviour.

An integral part of multiplayer gaming is the interaction with other gamers. The feeling of ‘social presence’ in an online environment is reliant on an emotional response to social interaction and the gamers in our study felt social satisfaction. The game sometimes enabled social interaction that might not otherwise be present. Previous research has shown how emotional attachment to games affects behaviour. Our study highlighted the role of emotional attachment to an avatar as a predictor for purchase intention. As well as emotional attachment increasing likelihood of spending, the spending of real money on items increases the attachment felt. It could be that purchasing virtual items may be a cyclical behaviour. It is also the case that purchasing affects the cognitions and emotions of gamers – ‘pride’ was a feeling that resonated among our interviewed gamers.

Our study also highlighted how gamers research items before purchasing them. It might be expected that easy-to-use transaction machinery might facilitate spending. However, in reality, the gamers we interviewed were guarded with their spending online and recommendations from friends playing a major role in purchase behaviour. Virtual assets can be then researched and the placing of real monetary value on the virtual items indicates the value they may hold to the gamer. Unlike media coverage focussing on the more negative impact of online gaming, our study highlighted the positive aspects of purchasing virtual assets for the gamer. They are able to feel connected socially, feel confidence in themselves and their success, express their inner and ideal self without constraint or fear, build lasting relationships, impress people, and generally benefit from gaming and buying virtual items.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bowman, N. D., Schultheiss, D., & Schumann, C. (2012). ‘‘I’m attached, and I’m a good guy/gal!’’: How character attachment influences pro- and anti-social motivations to play massively multiplayer online role-playing games. CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 15(3), 169-174.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1992). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M. D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

Griffiths, M. D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Griffiths, M.D., Hussain, Z., Grüsser, S., Thalemann, R., Cole, H. Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2013). Social interactions in online gaming. In P. Felicia (Ed.), Developments in Current Game-Based Learning Design and Deployment (pp.74-90). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Guo, Y., & Barnes, S. (2011). Purchase behavior in virtual worlds: An empirical investigation in Second Life. Information and Management, 48(7), 303-312.

Hamari, J. & Lehdonvirta, V. (2010). Game design as marketing: How game mechanics create demand for virtual goods. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 5(1), 14-29.

Hassouneh, D., & Brengman, M. (2011). Shopping in virtual worlds: Perceptions, motivations and behaviour. Journal of Electronic Commerce Research, 12(4), 320-335.

Huang, E. (2012). Online experiences and virtual goods purchase intention. Internet Research, 22(3), 252-274.

Hull, D., Williams, G. A. & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Video game characteristics, happiness and flow as predictors of addiction among video game players: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 145-152.

Hyped Talk (2010). Virtually addicted Chinese woman claims virtual assets in her divorce plea. Available at: [Accessed: 6 March 2013].

Lee, P. (2005). The growth in the computer game market is leading to real legal issues in virtual worlds. The Lawyer, 19 (19), 14.

Lehdonvirta, V. (2009) Virtual item sales as a revenue model: Identifying attributes that drive purchase decisions. Electronic Commerce Research, 9(1-2), 97-113.

Li, Z. (2012). Motivation of virtual goods transactions based on the theory of gaming motivations. Journal of Theoretical and Applied Information Technology, 43(2), 254-260.

Manninen, T. & Kujanpää, T. (2007). The value of virtual assets – the role of game characters in MMOGs. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 2(1), 21-33.

Character formation: Another look at addiction to buying virtual in-game items

I was recently interviewed at length by Mike Rose for an article he published on the Gamasutra website entitled Chasing the Whale that examined the ethics and sometimes addicting nature of free-to-play games. The article began with the story of Chris, a man in his mid-20s who played a lot of the game Team Fortress 2 (TF2). While playing TF2 he started to buy virtual items from the online store to use in-game (such as keys to open in-game crates). After opening some of the crates, Chris would share the online booty with other online gamers and “keep the good stuff” for himself. Chris got social benefits from giving away some of the virtual items to other players and this alone was worth paying real money for. Within half a year of buying his first virtual item, he ended up spending all the money he had:

“I’d use birthday money, I’d eat cheaper lunches, I’d ask my wife to pay for dinner so I’d have a spare $10-$20 to spend in the store. Which does mean, I guess, that I was thinking about it even away from the game. [After buying my first ‘unusual’ item marked with a purple seal] I had this unbeatable rush of adulation and excitement. For someone who didn’t get out much I was on cloud nine. And at that point things changed. I started chasing that high. My savings got wiped out pretty quickly – although it should be noted that at the time I didn’t have much put away to begin with. The real trouble wasn’t that it cleaned out my bank account, but that it put me in a really delicate situation. With no savings and every dollar not spent on food, shelter, or utilities going to digital hats, any unexpected expense became a really big deal.It got so bad that at one point Steam actually blocked my credit card, thinking I was some sort of account scammer [playing a] stupid game with fake hats. And like any addicted user, my social element didn’t help – most of my outside-of-work contacts were people I just played TF2 with.

At work I just wanted to be uncrating things, and when I was uncrating things I just wanted to see better results. [This then affected the relationship with my wife]. I’ve never really been addicted to anything else, so I can’t say for certain whether a ‘real’ addiction would be stronger. I would say that it felt akin to what I’d expect a compulsive gambling addiction would feel like – social pressures reinforced a behavior that kept me searching for an adrenaline rush I’d never be able to recapture, even as it kept me from making progress in life. There were nights where I’d be up until 3am drinking beer and playing Team Fortress and chasing those silly hats with purple text, ignoring the gambler’s fallacy and swearing that if I dropped another $50 I’d be sure to win this time. Then I’d wake up the next morning and see that I’d not only spent over a hundred dollars on digital hats, but failed my only objective by uncrating a bunch of junk”.

According to Rose’s account, it was on these mornings that Chris felt the worst. When the reality of what Chris had done hit him, he felt depressed and worthless. He told himself that he wouldn’t spend another penny on buying in-game items but just like a gambler, as soon as he got his next pay cheque, every last penny would go on buying new virtual items. To the game developers and operators, Chris is known colloquially as a ‘whale’ (i.e., one of the 1% of players that spends large amounts of money within free-to-play games and allows the gaming companies to make profits despite the fact that 99% of players don’t buy anything in-game). Chris said:

“I have to question whether a business model built on exploiting ‘whales’ like me isn’t somewhat to blame. Free-to-play games aren’t after everyone for a few dollars – they’re after weak people in vulnerable states for hundreds, if not thousands [of dollars]” 

Rose then started tracking down other ‘whales’ to get their stories. Many 9but by no means all) were similar to that of Chris. Rose questioned how many free-to-play game developers are building their profits on vulnerable players like Chris. More specifically he “pondered whether these ‘whale’ players are fully consenting to the hundreds and thousands of dollars that they are spending, or whether they are being manipulated and exploited by underhanded design that purposely aims to make the player feel like they simply have no choice”.

Rose’s own research highlighted that many whales (even those that had spent thousands of dollars) felt they had got their money’s worth (i.e., they had lots of fun playing and had simply bought their entertainment). Others said they were spending money they could afford and could stop any time they wanted to. Despite Chris being in the minority, Rose asserted that:

“A business model where even the smallest portion of players can find themselves losing control and essentially ruining their lives, is a model that must surely face scrutiny, whether on a industry or governmental level”.

To me, this has a large similarity with the gambling industry that has recently started to put social responsibility at the heart of its business model. Rose interviewed Ben Cousins, industry insider and an outspoken proponent of the free-to-play business model who said:

“I believe that the responsibility to control spending on any product or service lies with the consumer, unless there is some scientifically proven link to addiction as is the case with products and services like alcohol and gambling. When these links are established, I feel industries should self-govern first and if they fail to act responsibly, be subject to governmental control. I would personally like to see wide-ranging independent studies done before we jump to any conclusions about any negative psychological effects. When looking at a small sample size there is always going to be a lack of certainty in extrapolating that data to a larger population. I think if we see a broad proportion of the spending userbase reacting as they claim to have in these accounts, it’s easier to read this as the developers having discovered a damaging method of psychological consumer manipulation. When a very, very small proportion of the userbase react in this manner, while sad, it’s easier to read this as perhaps individual issues with those people which may be expressed in any number of negative ways, not just with spending in free-to-play games. I’m sure small numbers of very negative stories could be found for spending on almost any product or service”.

This line of reasoning was often used by the gambling industry 20 years ago and is currently being used by the video game industry more generally. I certainly believe that all forms of gaming (offline video gaming, social gaming, online gaming, etc.) will eventually embed player protection, harm minimization, and social responsibility into all of its products. In my interview for Rose’s article, I made a number of observations based on my many years studying both gambling and gaming. More specifically, I was quoted as saying:

“On first look, games like FarmVille may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology behind such activities is very similar. Even when games do not involve money, they introduce players to the principles and excitement of gambling. Companies like Zynga have been accused of leveraging the mechanics of gambling to build their empire. One element particularly key in encouraging gambling-like behaviour in free-to-play games is the act of random reinforcement – that is, the unpredictability of winning or getting other types of intermittent rewards. Small unpredictable rewards lead to highly engaged and repetitive behavior. In a minority of cases, this may lead to addiction. In those instances when there is no money changing hands, players “are learning the mechanics of gambling and there are serious questions about whether gambling with virtual money encourages positive attitudes towards gambling. The introduction of in-game virtual goods and accessories (that people pay real money for) was a psychological masterstroke. It becomes more akin to gambling, as social gamers know that they are spending money as they play with little or no financial return. The one question I am constantly asked is why people pay real money for virtual items in games like FarmVille. As someone who has studied slot machine players for over 25 years, the similarities are striking. The real difference between pure gambling games and some free-to-play games is the fact that gambling games allow you to win your money back, adding an extra dimension that can potentially drive revenues even further. The line between social free-to-play games and gambling is beginning to blur, bringing along with them various moral, ethical, legal, and social issues”.

Given my research background and my interest in gaming convergence, this is certainly an area I will be keeping a close eye on over the coming months and years.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Digital impact, crossover technologies and gambling practices. Casino and Gaming International, 4(3), 37-42.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Gaming convergence: Further legal issues and psychosocial impact. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 14, 461-464.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Gambling on Facebook? A cause for concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 11(9), 10-11.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Social gambling via Facebook: Further observations and concerns. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 104-106.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

King, D.L., Haagsma, M.C.,Delfabbro, P.H.,Gradisar, M.S., Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Toward a consensus definition of pathological video-gaming: A systematic review of psychometric assessment tools. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 331-342.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online social networking and addiction: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

Bitter sweet? A brief look at ‘addiction’ to Candy Crush

Earlier this week, the ‘addictiveness’ of the game Candy Crush made the national newspapers when the Daily Mail published the story with the headline ‘How women blow £400,000 a day playing Candy Crush, the most addictive online game ever’. The Mail article said:

“Look around any busy train or bus and it seems every other person with a smartphone or tablet is hooked on Candy Crush Saga, the latest online game to have taken the world by storm. With its twinkly lights, hypnotic music and comic sound effects, it has millions of people in its grip – and, like 2010’s Angry Birds, which even numbered [British Prime Minister] David Cameron among its fans, it has become an online sensation…An astonishing 700million games of Candy Crush are played every day on mobile devices alone, according to AppData, a leading authority on social media trends. But, unlike so many video games, it appears that instead of teenage boys and men, it’s mostly women who are in thrall to Candy Crush. According to the game’s creators,, women aged 25-55 are the demographic most loyal to the game…According to ThinkGaming, Candy Crush makes an estimated £400,000 a day for King. That’s £146m a year, figures which have prompted the Office of Fair Trading to voice concern that guidelines are needed to stop firms exploiting young users.King claims that 90 per cent of its players are over 21, but maturity doesn’t seem to prevent women…from falling under Candy Crush’s spell”.

I was interviewed by the journalist that wrote the article [Jill Foster] who wanted to know why it was such an ‘addictive’ game and why so many women played it. I told her that Candy Crush is a gender-neutral games that has a ‘moreish’ quality (a bit like chocolate – although this analogy didn’t end up in the article) and can fit in flexibly around what women do in their day-to-day life. The game takes up all the player’s cognitive ability because anyone playing on it has to totally concentrate on it. By being totally absorbed players can forget about everything else for a few minutes. I speculated that this may be particularly appealing to many women whether they are a stay-at-home mother who has ten minutes to play it in between childcare, or a business executive on her commute. It’s deceptively simple and fun. I also noted that unlike many online games, Candy Crush doesn’t involve killing or fighting, and it doesn’t feature strong male characters or highly sexualized female characters. For those of you reading this that have yet to play Candy Crush, the Mail report provided a good description of the game:

“The rules of Candy Crush are indeed simple. Players move a variety of brightly coloured sweets – or candies – around a grid and line up at least three of the same sweet in a row. Every time a row is completed, the line explodes, making way for more sweets to drop in. With more than 400 different stages, each more difficult than the last, and more being added all the time, players never need run out of challenges. As a so-called ‘freemium’ product, basic access to the game is free, but users must pay for ‘premium’ services. Players aren’t charged to advance through the first 35 levels but after that, it costs 69p for another 20 levels, although it is possible to avoid paying by asking your Facebook friends to send you extra lives. However, the cost can rise as players are encouraged to buy ‘boosters’ such as virtual ‘candy hammers’ for around £1”.

In typical tabloid style, the Mail article had interviewed a number of women that were used as examples to demonstrate the existence of Candy Crush ‘addiction’. For instance, Lucy Berkley, a 44-year old company director from Ashford in Kent told of how she came into her office on a Monday morning with severe back pain. All of her work colleagues could clearly see she was in much discomfort. The cause of her back pain was Candy Crush that she had played for ten hours over the weekend hunched over her iPad. She claimed I couldn’t help it, it was so addictive. The extraordinary thing was that almost everyone else in the room admitted they too were addicted. Now we’re all competing”. Another woman, Steph, a mother-of-one interviewed for the Mail article said:

“I’m thinking about it all the time. I call it “crack candy” because I imagine giving up is like trying to break a crack habit. I hadn’t heard of it until I saw that many friends – all intelligent, creative women – were playing it on Facebook. I’ve never played any other game on my phone. But I don’t like going a day without my ‘fix’. I play it whenever I have a free moment. In the morning I play on my commute and when I look around the train, nearly every other person seems to be doing the same. I’ll have a sneaky game or two at lunchtime. When I get home, I’ll leave the ironing or the housework and have half an hour – or more – on the iPad. [At the weekend when] I’ve got up and read the papers, I’ll start playing and that’s me sorted for the next three to four hours. In fact, I only usually stop when my iPad runs out of battery. My boyfriend thinks I’m mad. My son Ben, who is at boarding school, can’t understand my obsession. I’ve been known to meet him off a train and rather than give him a hug I’ve said ‘Just a minute Ben, I’m just getting on to the next level!”

She then went on to say:

“Over the past four months I’ve probably spent around £150 playing it. But it’s worth it…I’m thinking about it all the time. I wake up and the first thing I do is pick up my phone to have a game, then I’ll be playing if I get a spare second before work. I play it on my walk from the car to the office. When I come home, I play it while I’m cooking the evening meal or watching TV. [My partner] Martin thinks I’m bonkers. When the lights go out and we’re in bed he’ll say: ‘I know you’re playing it because I can see the light from your phone’ so I have to play it under the covers. My son asks: “Why are you playing that game again Mum?’ It’s as if our roles have been reversed. It’s taking over my life. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop”.

Although none of the cases covered in the piece appear to be genuinely addicted by the criteria I use to assess addiction, that doesn’t mean the cases are uninteresting psychologically or that games like Candy Crush are totally innocuous. I have noted in a number of my more general writings about games played via social networking sites that ‘freemium’ games are psychological ‘foot-in-the-door’ techniques that lead a small minority of people to pay for games and/or game accessories that they may never have originally planned to buy before playing the game (akin to ‘impulse buying’ in other commercial environments. I’ve also argued that many of the games played on social network sites share similarities with gambling. As I noted in my interview with the Mail:

‘On first look, games like Candy Crush may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology is very similar. Even when games do not involve money, they introduce players to the principles and excitement of gambling. Small unpredictable rewards lead to highly engaged, repetitive behaviour. In a minority, this may lead to addiction”

Basically, people keep responding in the absence of reinforcement hoping that another reward is just around the corner (a psychological principle rooted in operant conditioning and called the partial reinforcement extinction effect – something that is used to great effect in both slot machines and most video games). Another woman interviewed for the Mail story (Jenni Weaver, a 40-year-old mum of four from Bridlington) is worried that she’s addicted to Candy Crush (and based on her interview quotes, she certainly appears to display some signs of bona fide addictive behaviour) She told the Mail that her Candy Crush addiction was beginning to affect family life:

‘I’m playing it for eight hours a day now and it’s become a real problem. My daughter told me about it. I was hooked straight away. The longest I’ve played for is 12 hours with just a few short breaks in between. It’s worse than smoking…Housework has gone to pot. I’ve even been late picking my ten-year-old up from school because I’ve been stuck on a level. I’ve burnt countless dinners and let vegetables boil dry because I’ve been engrossed. I’m trying to limit myself, but I can still spend eight hours a day playing it. It’s ridiculous.’

Earlier this year, I was interviewed at length by Mike Rose (for Gamasutra, the online magazine about gaming issues), who wrote a really good set of articles about free-to-play games. In one of Rose’s articles I argued that even in games where no money is changing hands, players are learning the mechanics of gambling and that there are serious questions about whether gambling with virtual money encourages positive attitudes towards gambling. As I have noted in a number of my recent articles, the introduction of in-game virtual goods and accessories (that people pay real money for) was a psychological masterstroke. It becomes more akin to gambling, as social gamers know that they are spending money as they play with little or no financial return. The real difference between pure gambling games and some free-to-play games is the fact that gambling games allow you to win your money back, adding an extra dimension that can potentially drive revenues even further. The lines between social free-to-play games and gambling is beginning to blur, bringing along with them various moral, ethical, legal, and social issues. The psychosocial impact of free-to-play games is only just beginning to be investigated by people in the field of gaming studies. Empirically, we know almost nothing about the psychosocial impact of gambling or gaming via social networking sites, although research suggests the playing of free games among adolescents is one of the risk factors for both the uptake of real gambling and problem gambling.

Postscript: Following the Daily Mail story I was also interviewed at length for a story that appeared in Yahoo! News – you can read my in-depth comments here.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Foster, J. (2013). How women blow £400,000 a day playing Candy Crush, the most addictive online game ever. Daily Mail, October 17. Located at:

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gambling, social responsibility and ‘foot-in-the-door techniques. i-Gaming Business, 62, 100-101.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The psychology of social gaming. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 26-27.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Social gambling via Facebook: Further observations and concerns. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 104-106.

Hall, C. (2013). Just how addictive are mobile games? Yahoo! News, October 18. Located at:–143654713.html#P1M3U7a

Lagorio-Chaflkin, C. (2013). Candy Crush Saga’s intoxicating secret source., July 25. Located at:

Pressman, A. (2013). Candy Crush: Insanely addictive today, but likely on borrowed time. The Exchange, July 11. Located at:

Rose, M. (2013). Chasing the Whales: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games. Gamasutra, July 9. Located at:

Risky business: A brief look at simulated gambling in video gaming

Recent empirical research studies suggest that children and adolescents access online gambling activities using digital devices such as personal computers, laptops, smartphones, and other portable devices. Three national adolescent gambling surveys carried out for the National Lottery Commission in Great Britain have all shown a small minority of children and adolescents can and do gamble online. A 2011 study by Ipsos MORI reported that 2% of 11-16 year olds had played online lottery games and 2% had gambled on other online games (i.e., online casinos, online poker, online bingo and/or online sports betting). These data suggest that the first gambling experiences by some children and adolescents might occur via the Internet, mobile phones, and/or interactive television rather than in a traditional offline gaming venue such as a casino, amusement arcade or bookmakers.

As gambling on the internet has expanded, a wide range of ‘gambling-like’ activities has emerged on smartphones, social networking sites, and within video games. There are also opportunities to gamble without spending money on both commercial gambling websites and social networking sites. These ‘free play’ simulations of gambling activities provide opportunities for youth to practice or become more familiar with gambling activities without spending real money. Despite the proliferation of non-monetary gambling simulations, there has been little research or policy attention on them. Simulated gambling activities and gambling themes also feature in many modern video games. In a paper published in a 2012 issue of International Gambling Studies, I and my research colleagues (Dr. Paul Delfabbro and Dr. Daniel King of the University of Adelaide [Australia], and Dr. Jeff Derevensky of McGill University [Montreal, Canada]) noted that video games that feature gambling may be categorised according to the following three categories:

  • Standard gambling simulation: A digitally simulated interactive gambling activity that is structurally identical to the standard format of an established gambling activity, such as blackjack or roulette. For instance, Texas Hold ’em (TikGames) is a standard gambling simulation of the poker variant of the same name. Poker is played using virtual credits against a computer opponent or in competition with other online players. Playing poker represents the entirety of the gaming experience in this video game. In contrast, the video game Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar) features a casino situated within the virtual game world that allows players to gamble using in-game credit with or against other players in social competitions. However, the gambling content within this type of video game represents only a small part of the overall gaming experience.
  • Non-standard gambling simulation: An interactive gambling activity that involves the intentional wagering of in-game credits or other items on an uncertain outcome, in an activity that may be partially modelled on a standard gambling activity but which contains distinct player rules or other structural components that differ from established gambling games. For instance, the video game Fable II Pub Games contains three unique casino-style games, partly modelled on craps (dice), roulette, and slot machines. Players can wager ‘gold coins’ on chance-determined outcomes (i.e., patterns in cards, dice throws, spinning wheels, etc.) in order to win greater amounts of gold, as well as other items and prizes.
  • Gambling references: The appearance of non-interactive gambling material or gambling-related paraphernalia/materials within the context of the video game.

Online video games may also feature opportunities to gamble. For example, online games such as EVE Online and World of Warcraft include player-operated gambling activities using the in-game currency. These activities are usually supported through websites adjunctive to the video game (i.e., wagers are placed outside the game), but the gambling activity (i.e., winning and losing) takes place in the game world. Gambling activities include sports betting (e.g., placing bets on the outcome of player duels and battles) and lotteries (e.g., selling raffle tickets for a chance at winning a prize). The relative scarcity of in-game assets, including currency and items, makes them valuable to the game’s community of players. Some players will exchange real money for in-game currency as way of advancing more quickly in the game. The option to exchange in-game currency and other content (virtual goods) to other players for real world money thus gives these activities a limited, albeit indirect, financial element.

Modern video games provide realistic and sophisticated simulated gambling opportunities to youth. According to a paper we published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies, the potential risks of young people engaging in simulated gambling include:

  • Greater familiarity with gambling and acceptance of gambling as a ‘normal’ entertainment activity;
  • The development of gambling strategies and the ability to practice these strategies without need of money;
  • The development of positive gambling beliefs and thoughts of ‘winning big’ associated with gambling;
  • Exposure to the excitement of gambling wins, including bonuses and jackpots;
  • False expectations about how gambling operates and an inflated sense of its long-term profitability.

Simulated gambling has the potential to offer positive experiences associated with gambling without the typical barriers to entry associated with gambling (e.g., money, age restriction). Although no actual money is involved in simulated gambling, it is recognised that people (including youth) are not only motivated to gamble for financial reasons. Gambling can provides excitement, relief from boredom, a way of coping with problems, and a means of social interaction (i.e., playing with friends). Very simply, gambling is engaged in not only for financial rewards, but for physiological, psychological, and/or social rewards. Simulated gambling activities may also enable youth to feel more comfortable with gambling per se, which may assist the transition from simulated gambling to gambling with real money.

A risk associated with video games that feature simulated gambling is that activities may often combine the skill and fast-paced action of a video game with the chance-based nature of gambling. This combination of skill and chance may set up false expectations about the governing rules and player control involved in gambling activities. For example, younger players may believe that, with sufficient practice, they can overcome and master the challenges of the game.

Youth gambling represents a serious social problem. Therefore, it is important for researchers, health professionals, and parents to be informed about emerging media risk factors for problem gambling. Commercial video gaming technologies provide young people with unrestricted access to realistic gambling and gambling-like experiences. This blog has highlighted that some commercial video games feature casino-style gambling activities that enable players to gamble using in-game credit with or against other players in social competition.

Simulated gambling in video games is often associated with incentives and rewards, such as virtual currency, rare in-game items, and other content of large contextual value in the game. While some video games with simulated gambling may be intended for use by adults only, many video games (e.g., Pokémon) feature content that appeals mainly to a younger audience. This material could therefore be considered a form of gambling advertising targeted at youth. Furthermore, simulated gambling in video games may enhance young players’ familiarity of casino and card games. Given the brief overview presented here, we would recommend that policymakers should critically consider the growing presence of gambling in online gaming and social media technologies, and associated issues of social responsibility as these activities become more monetised and/or promote or otherwise endorse involvement in monetary gambling activities.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Additional input: Dr. Daniel King and Dr. Paul Delfabbro

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Technological trends and the psychosocial impact on gambling. Casino and Gaming International, 7(1), 77-80.

Griffiths, M. D., King, D. L., & Delfabbro, P. H. (2009). Adolescent gambling-like experiences: Are they a cause for concern? Education and Health, 27, 27-30.

Griffiths, M. D. & Parke, J. (2010). Adolescent gambling on the Internet: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 59-75.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2007). Adolescent Internet gambling: Preliminary results of a national survey. Education and Health, 25, 23-27.

Ipsos MORI. (2009). British Survey of Children, the National Lottery and Gambling 2008–09: Report of a quantitative survey. London: National Lottery Commission.

Ipsos MORI. (2011). Underage Gambling in England and Wales: A research study among 11-16 year olds on behalf of the National Lottery Commission. London: National Lottery Commission.

King, D. L., Delfabbro, P. H., & Griffiths, M. D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

Volberg, R., Gupta, R., Griffiths, M.D., Olason, D. & Delfabbro, P.H. (2010). An international perspective on youth gambling prevalence studies. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 3-38.

Character building: Can the buying of virtual assets be addictive?

The potentially addicting nature of online gaming has been well documented over the last decade by many researchers (including many papers from my own research unit). One of the unforeseen consequences of the online gaming revolution is the (sometimes seemingly extraordinary) demand for virtual within-game assets (such as the buying of clothing, cosmetic items, and other accessories for online characters). Given the increase of companies whose only products are virtual gaming accessories, there is clear evidence for the growing demand by online gamers for such virtual assets. (In fact, a story published online reviewed the case of a Chinese woman who in her divorce case demanded a share of the couple’s virtual assets from their gaming).

From a personal perspective, I can see the attraction of having a personalized avatar. When I first bought a Wii console for my children, we spent hours creating our in-game characters (mine was quite easy for my kids to create as almost any Wii character with dark hair, beard, moustache, and glasses looks vaguely like me). I prefer playing Wii tennis and other sports with my own avatar. I also know that from my own psychological research into Facebook use, that users on social networking sites will spend real money to buy virtual assets for games like Farmville, as well as using real money to buy virtual currency to play games like poker (for points).

Over the weekend, I was sent an online article published by Priyanka Singh on the MMOBUX website about someone who claimed they were becoming addicted to the buying of virtual assets for the game he was playing online (MapleStory, a 2-D fantasy multiplayer online role playing game where progress in the game is determined by the successful playing of a series of quests). The article provided a first person account written by a female adolescent (presumably in her middle to late teens) about her increasing buying behaviour at a virtual ‘Item Mall’. According to the anonymous person who wrote the account provided by Singh:

“An Item Mall is a dangerous place for players who demand more from the game. Instead of focusing their efforts on the task at hand, players usually turn to the Item Mall to spend real world money in it. It is a trend which continues to happen now, across every MMO which can be labeled an obsession. [An Item Mall] is a place that host items which cannot be purchased directly through vendors. So much so…[that] purchasing cosmetic items in the Item Mall using real world money [can] transform into a deadly, yet uncontrollable obsession”

In 2006 the young woman in question started to play MapleStory. It was while playing the game that she started to notice the bespoke outfits worn by other characters playing the game. She then discovered that MapleStory had its own Item Mall where players could buy (among other things) character outfits, pets, pet accessories, weapons, etc. It was at the Item Mall that the player first bought a $30 (Canadian) game card (that was converted into 20,000 Nexon points) that can only be spent on virtual items for use in the MapleStory online game. She only bought a few of the available items but all of the Nexon points were spent. It was over a fairly short period of time that the gamer noticed she was spending more time in the Item Mall than playing the game itself. As she noted:

“I’d be entering the Item Mall more often to look at the new cosmetic items posted for purchase. Eventually I caved in and bought more items which included a staff, a cat and accessories. Needless to say the idea of buying virtual items was appealing to me. Through my purchases, I was constantly reminded these items lasted only 60 days until they expire. Regardless of the reminders, I continued to purchase more items until the point it became a direct obsession and a habit which couldn’t be mended easily”.

She browsed in the Item Mall for longer and longer periods and would mix and match clothing and accessories for her avatar. Spending $100 (Canadian) was not uncommon, and the buying of the virtual assets “became second nature” to the point where she spent more time in the Item Mall than playing and going on quests in MapleStory. The spending of money on virtual assets at the item Mall (that he couldn’t afford) went on for half a year, and led to a number of negative consequences:

“My grades dropped [and] I was placed on probation for the semester. Of course, in addition to failing my subjects, the tension at home intensified. I was banned from the laptop. Taking matters into my own hands, I stopped myself from playing MapleStory for a week but it was unbearable. Once I gained access back into the game, I immediately headed for the Item Mall and purchased new items. After a month or so, I began to realize what I was becoming – an Item Mall addict. By that point I realized this got a little too out of hand and I uninstalled the game before the damage was permanent”.

Such consequences certainly look like the negative detrimental effects that I have encountered in other behavioural addictions such as gambling addiction. The excessive behaviour (or simply spending much more than could be afforded) led to a negative impact on her education. When he tried to stop, it became “unbearable” (presumably because of the withdrawal effects of mot being able to log into the Item Mall). After a week she relapsed and logged on and bought more virtual assets for her online gaming character. By her own admission, she realized he might be becoming an ‘Item Mall addict’. She also provided a more reflective outlook on her past behaviour when in the Item Mall:

“Now when I look back at my behavior, it was unacceptable. Although I can understand and sympathize why buying virtual items was addicting; [my] character was dressed up in the most fashionable threads or holding a bad-ass weapons others couldn’t afford. It gives you a sense of ‘uniqueness’ if it can be called that. I’m glad I quit the game before it couldn’t be controlled. It was money wasted when placed into perspective. Though I was lucky (in a way) I had own my own credit card and I didn’t use my parents’ card for the purchases. In conclusion, buying virtual items is a waste of money and time. Most of if not all virtual items contain an expiry date after which the item disappears from your inventory…I was lucky I wasn’t a complete addict but I was close to being one”.

My own take on this is that because the virtual items are (in effect) ‘rented’ (as the items bought ‘expire’ after six months), it is almost a licence to print money for the company selling the virtual assets. I have no idea if the gamer that wrote the account of her Item Mall behaviour was a genuine obsession or addiction, but it was certainly a behaviour that was problematic and impacted negatively on her life. Spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on virtual assets is not sustainable for most adolescents and is likely to lead to problems (irrespective of whether the behaviour can be defined as genuinely ‘addictive”). This is certainly an area where empirical research is needed as the buying of virtual assets is – for some gamers – likely to become a major part of how they spend their disposable income. This anecdotal case study also raises questions of whether the excessive spending of money on virtual assets for game characters is more of a female (than male) behaviour.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online video gaming: What should educational psychologists know? Educational Psychology in Practice, 26(1), 35-40.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, in press.

Hyped Talk (2010). Virtually addicted Chinese woman claims virtual assets in her divorce plea.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Griffiths, M.D. & Gradisar, M. (2012). Cognitive-behavioural approaches to outpatient treatment of Internet addiction in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 68, 1185-1195.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online social networking and addiction: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

Singh, P. (2012). Maple Story Item Mall Addiction (A Virtual Asset Case Study). MMOBUX, October 12. Located at: