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Growing concern over the link between video game loot boxes and compulsive gambling

Kids who buy loot boxes in video games are ‘establishing a relationship with the game that their brains aren’t ready for’, after a new study finds a link between buying such loot boxes and gambling problems in adolescents.

Introduced in video games over the past decade, a loot box is where a player can purchase an in-game item for real money that has a random chance of getting a desirable item that can increase his chances of winning.

In popular FIFA soccer video games, for example, players in the Ultimate Team mode compete against each other and try to put together the best teams. Like trading cards, different football players can be found in “packs”.

You can acquire these packs by playing the game and earning in-game currency. But you can also buy them with real money. In these packs there is often only a very small chance of acquiring some of the most popular players like Messi, Ronaldo and Mbappe.

Such loot boxes have also been seen in other popular games such as Fortnite and Overwatch. This latest research was conducted in Australia and funded by the New South Wales government’s Responsible Gambling Fund.

The study said: “Controlling for monetary gambling, age and gender, recent purchase of loot boxes increased the odds of problem gambling by 3.7 to 6.0 times and risky gambling by 2.8 to 4.3 times.”

The researchers said their findings indicated that loot boxes “disproportionately appealed to teens with gambling problems, adding to the financial stress caused by gambling.”

“The main finding that purchasing loot boxes independently predicts problem gambling and risky gambling among youth supports the need for consumer protection tools in games with loot boxes” , says the study.

He said the harm minimization measures provided for online gambling, such as limit setting options, clear information about the odds of winning and self-exclusion options, are something “noticeably absent from these games”.

He also said the link found between loot boxes and online gambling supports calls to restrict the purchase of such games to those who are of legal gambling age. Barry Grant, CEO of Extern Problem Gambling in Ireland, said he was “concerned that these things are being put in front of children in the first place”.

“This study shows that there is an overlap there with young people who meet the criteria for problem gambling with spending on loot boxes,” he said. “We would definitely want loot boxes to come under the jurisdiction of the new gambling regulator.”

During a recent Seanad debate on proposals for gambling reforms, with the new gambling regulator to be operational next year, Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly highlighted the impact of loot boxes .

“They have blurred the distinction because they are mystery boxes that can sometimes be purchased with real money and the value of their contents involves chance or luck, which is ultimately a game,” she said.

“There was a report that showed 40% of kids open these loot boxes.

That’s 40% of people who choose to play in the middle of something that’s a game and is meant to be fun. They don’t identify it with that, but it puts them on the path. It’s very dangerous.

The minister responsible for leading the game’s reform efforts is junior justice minister James Browne. On the loot boxes, he said that “we have to be aware that society is changing rapidly”.

“We all remember the hype 12 years ago about setting up a physical casino in Tipperary and how that could impact and promote gambling,” he said. “Now every 12-year-old walks around with a casino in their back pocket. That’s the reality.”

Mr Browne said the government will take ‘as comprehensive an approach as possible’ to regulating gambling in Ireland and the measures will be ‘future proof’ so they can adapt to changing circumstances circumstances.