Video game ‘loot boxes’ have been linked to problem gambling. 

A new study has found gamers who buy ‘loot boxes’ are up to two times more likely to gamble. 

They are also more likely to have a gambling problem compared with the gamers who do not purchase these virtual treasure chests, according to the findings based on more than 1,600 adults.

Designed to grab the player’s attention, loot boxes are typically purchased using real-world money, and contain a random assortment of virtual objects such as weapons or new characters, and are largely unregulated unlike online gambling.

The study results actually cast doubt on the theory that psychological factors create the link between gambling and loot boxes - banned by some countries including Belgium and discussed for legislation in many others worldwide.  

The study in fact demonstrates that the association between these video game features and gambling exists even when childhood neglect, depression and other known risk factors for gambling are taken into account.

The authors say their findings have potential implications for policymakers and for healthcare. 

They are calling for more research into the benefit of harm minimisation features, with some online platforms having already implemented these - such as telling players the odds of winning when they buy a loot box.  

The researchers analysed a year of loot box purchases by 1,189 students at five Canadian universities, and 499 adults recruited from an online crowdsourcing platform and an online polling/survey site.  

Aged 18 and above, all participants completed an online questionnaire about their video gaming and addictive behaviours, their mental health and other issues.  

The study took into account a larger number of psychological risk factors for gambling than previous research. These included emotional distress, the tendency to act rashly when upset, and adverse childhood experiences including abuse and neglect. 

Results showed that a similar proportion (17 per cent) of the students and community participants bought loot boxes with an average spend of $90.63 and $240.94, respectively. 

The majority identified as male in both participant groups.   

Over a quarter (28 per cent) of students who bought loot boxes reported past year gambling compared with 19 per cent of non-purchasers. More than half (57 per cent) of the community adults who purchased them had gambled and 38 per cent of non-purchasers.

Students who reported riskier loot box purchasing habits (e.g., buying more loot boxes) were more likely to have a worse gambling habit. However, this was not the case for the community participants, which the researchers attribute to a small sample size.

Of all the psychological risk factors, adverse childhood experiences were most consistently associated with an increased likelihood of past-year gambling and greater problem gambling.

The authors say this may suggest that people with troubled upbringings have a ‘heightened vulnerability’ to developing gambling problems. 

“This may be compounded by engaging with gambling-like features embedded in video games, such as loot boxes,” they add.

The full study is accessible here.