Spending in video games linked to gambling problems


Online gamers call them “loot boxes”, but a federal review issued this week used the more precise name of “gaming micro-transactions for chance-based items”.  Video gamers in traditional or virtual reality games are spending real money to gain access to loot boxes or treasure chests containing virtual objects useful in playing games and competing with friends online.  

The practice seems to fall outside many existing regulations on gambling, but some experts say that the psychological experience of intermittent and unpredictable rewards is similar to gambling with electronic slot machines or online poker.  However, online gaming is open to children and even adults who play and pay do not have information on the odds of paying money but not receiving much of a virtual prize. The latest EA Games Star Wars series allows users to pay for upgraded weapons or virtual character enhancements for players’ avatars.  

Some believe the Australian inquiry resulted in watered down recommendations about what actually goes on inside the ‘black box’ driving players to spend money. Dr Marcus Carter, USyd Lecturer in Digital Cultures, gave expert evidence to the review regarding the social, persuasive and educational dimensions and experiences of digital game play.  

In comments on the final report, Dr Carter said, “Overall, this is a comprehensive report that identifies all the pertinent issues, but it is clear the committee is held back by the lack of objective academic research into the ways loot boxes are actually configured by developers and the longer-term impacts on players, particularly children….

I hope that the comprehensive review of loot boxes led by the Department of Communications and the Arts recommended in the report is able to reveal exactly how these systems are configured ‘under-the-hood’, something we currently know little about. Our lack of understanding about how these systems actually work limits the capacity for research to identify and understand potential harms.”


This story is featured in the 30 November 2018 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.

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