Why we need to stop loot boxes from becoming another moral panic © Getty Images

Why we need to stop loot boxes from becoming another moral panic

At face value, loot boxes look like a digital form of gambling. But what are loot boxes? What effect do they have on us? And should we panic over them?

For nearly as long as video games have been around, society has had worries about their potentially addictive nature. It’s understandable, in a sense – to the untrained eye, watching people play video games can often be an unnerving experience.

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Players look like they’re glued to their screens, fully absorbed and seemingly unaware of what’s going on around them. If you don’t have lived experience of the rich and varied social environments that video games can afford, it’s easy to see them as an unwholesome activity – unnatural, even – that can’t be good for us.

In the early 1980s, this distrust went so far as to be a subject of debate in the UK House of Commons. Control of Space Invaders and Other Electronic Games was a bill put forward by then-MP George Foulkes, and he held no punches in his beliefs about the effects the game had: “I have seen reports from all over the country of young people becoming so addicted to these machines that they resort to theft, blackmail and vice to obtain money to satisfy their addiction… They become crazed, with eyes glazed, oblivious to everything around them, as they play the machines.”

The bill never passed, but the fears around video games remained. In 1982, a year after the Commons debate, a letter appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled ‘Space Invaders Obsession’. In it, researchers based at Duke University Medical centre flagged an apparent psychiatric complication of playing the game – three men, aged between 25 and 35, were reported to have become, well, obsessed with the game, vastly upping the amount of time they were playing it in the weeks leading up to each of their marriages.

In the letter, the researchers suggested, bizarrely, that the fixation came about because the men were struggling to deal with their ‘anger’ over their impending nuptials. “The disintegration of invading aliens who were trying to overrun the ‘home base’ took on symbolic significance,” they breathlessly argued, in what appears to be a damning indictment of wedlock.

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Space Invaders took the centre stage in these concerns because it was the big hit of the time, and since then, each time we’ve gone through a cycle of worries about the potential negative effects of video games, they’ve largely been pinned to the most popular titles of the moment. In the 1990s, it was games like Doom and Mortal Kombat that fuelled our fears of violent video games causing aggression. Then it was first-person shooters like Call of Duty.

In 2018, when the World Health Organisation announced that it was including ‘gaming disorder’ as a formal addictive behaviour in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), it was worldwide success Fortnite that took the brunt of the news stories about gaming addiction – headlines such as ‘Fortnite Addiction Now A Recognized Mental Health Disorder’, and ‘Children hooked on Fortnite will be treated on the NHS for addiction’ came to the fore as journalists scrabbled to put the WHO’s decision in context.

As is always the case, what the headlines claim and what the actual research suggests are two very different stories. Scientists are still in disagreement about what gaming addiction actually looks like, how best to diagnose it, and how many people it might affect. And there’s certainly no evidence to suggest that specific games, like Fortnite now, or Space Invaders then, are more or less addictive.

In fact, that goes to heart of one of the fundamental problems of research in the area: by and large, research takes a macro-level view of video games effects, treating them as a singular entity – or at best, segregating them based on genre categorisations that often don’t fully capture the breadth and variety of experiences that games can afford us.

World of Warcraft is a classic example of this. The 16-year-old massively multiplayer online roleplaying game has often cropped up in news stories about violent video games, and while that categorisation is in some sense true – much of the game involves fighting hordes of monsters and demons – it’s also a game that, among other things, allows you to tend to gardens, socialise with friends, help other players out with difficult quests, or collect a vast array of pets and riding mounts.

A popular yearly event in-game is ‘the running of the gnomes’, whereby the community gathers together to create new gnomish characters, replete with pink hair and beards, who then run across the world en-masse to raise money for breast cancer awareness. Is it a violent game? In some ways, yes. In most ways, not really, which makes it hard to neatly categorise when it comes to assessing the potential positive and negative effects of game play.

Over the past few years, media effects researchers have started to come to the realisation that, rather than focus on video games as a homogeneous group, it’s more useful to look at how specific mechanisms that are implemented within them might have more testable effects.

And, given the general worries about video game addiction that have been a mainstay of public discussions about them, the most prominent mechanism that has drawn attention is how games have become increasingly monetised through in-game microtransactions. Specifically, scientists – and policymakers – have started to become interested in loot boxes.

What are loot boxes?

Loot boxes, if you’ve never come across them before, are essentially the digital equivalent of those football sticker packs we used to collect when we were younger. In a given game, you have the opportunity to open a box (or a pack of cards, or spin a wheel) that contains a random selection of items that can be used in play.

The specific form that these items take varies – in some games, you might get the chance at a new costume for a character, whereas in others you might get new powers that give you an in-game advantage – but the principle is largely the same across formats.

Some of the items will appear frequently, be of relatively low value, and therefore not particularly desirable. Other items are much rarer, offering more powerful benefits or fancier costumes, and therefore more covetable. Where some games offer you free boxes after completing certain tasks – say, after levelling up your character – most also offer you the option to buy additional boxes for cash, and it’s this possibility that has some scientists concerned.

Are loot boxes encouraging gambling?

In many ways, loot boxes look a lot like gambling – you pay some money to get an (often undisclosed) chance at something you really want. The more you pay, the more likely you are to ‘win’, but there’s never a 100 per cent guarantee. And an emerging body of research is starting to show that there are associations between the way that loot boxes are implemented in games, the extent to which players buy them, and issues in terms of problematic gambling behaviours and mental wellbeing.

It’s very early days for this area of study, but all of the papers published on loot boxes so far seem to show the same patterns: greater levels of loot box purchases seem to be positively correlated with increasing levels of problematic gambling.

For example, recent work led by Dr David Zendle at the University of York surveyed 1200 participants, and asked them to complete various questions about their online gaming habits, the types of loot boxes they encounter in the games they play, as well as a questionnaire about problematic gambling habits.

The overall take-home message from the study was that regardless of how loot boxes are implemented, if you pay for them, there was a relationship with levels of problem gambling – about 9 per cent of the variation in these levels could be accounted for by purchase behaviours.

That effect became stronger or weaker depending on the specifics of the mechanism: for example, some games use a ‘near miss’ strategy (akin to those seen in slot machines), showing players what they could have won but just missed out on. That seemed to show the strongest effect, whereas for games in which the items players could win didn’t offer any in-game advantage (i.e. ‘cosmetic’ items, like character outfits), the effect was weaker.

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This finding, that paying for loot boxes correlates with higher levels of problem gambling behaviours, is one that we see in a wealth of other studies in the area, and has in part resulted in a drive to revise the UK gambling act to better regulate such mechanisms in games.

The argument goes that although these studies don’t show a causal relationship between loot box spending and problem gambling, in a sense it doesn’t matter, because either direction is cause for concern. Either it’s the case that paying for loot boxes acts as a ‘gateway’ and causes people to develop problem gambling behaviours, or it’s that people who are already disposed to disordered gambling are more drawn to games that contain loot boxes, in which case vulnerable individuals are being inappropriately exploited.

That’s a reasonable starting position to take, but we have to be careful here. Video games research has a long history of starting from a situation in which exploratory studies using methods that have significant limitations all converge on a similar finding, which then drives public concern about the seemingly negative effects of playing games.

In turn, this forms a focal point for policymakers to want to enact legislation restricting their use in some way. Much later down the line, when we start to get stronger studies using much more robust methods, we start to see a very different line of evidence come through, one which lies counter to the prevailing belief about the effects of games.

Should we ban loot boxes? What does the research say?

Perhaps the most well-known example in the cycle of moral panics driven by ill-thought-out research is that of the debate around so-called violent video games. For decades, a vast literature built up which appeared to show evidence that playing violent video games caused increases in aggressive behaviour in young people.

The methods used to assess aggressive behaviour were extremely poor – it’s hard to convincingly test for truly aggressive behaviours in the lab – nevertheless, the idea that games like World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and Doom could drive teenagers to acts of violence took hold in the public psyche, driving among other things, congressional debates about them in the US senate.

But as scientists started to implement better tools to assess this question, it turned out that although there might be a link between playing violent video games at a young age and later aggressive behaviours, the associations are small, and not really worth worrying about.

And yet we still see a cycle of news articles every few months or so which perpetuate the idea that ‘violent’ games are demonstrably negative in their impact on us. It’s an idea that will still take time to turn around.

A screenshot from Call of Duty © Activision
Call of Duty may be violent, but that doesn’t translate to violent behaviour in real life © Activision

Loot box research, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from the same fundamental issues that plagued work on violent video games, and in fact it’s an area of study where we see real attempts to get the science right.

Much of the work in this area adheres to the principles of open science: scientists pre-specify how they are going to collect data and how they plan on analysing before the start of their studies, in order to protect against the risk of fishing for results that show a particular effect.

Nevertheless, given that most of the literature relies on correlational findings, we’re not yet at a stage where we can say with any conviction that, for the majority of gamers, loot boxes pose a clear problem that we need to do something about.

For example, a recent study by a team led by Dr Aaron Drummond at Massey University in New Zealand again showed a positive correlation between loot box spending and problem gambling, but the absolute effect was small – on average, those with problematic gambling behaviours spent about $13 USD more than those without symptoms.

Moreover, loot box spending seemed to be correlated with both negative and positive moods, suggesting that the relationship with mental wellbeing is a complex one that we need more time to unpack.

In order to address some of these gaps in our current understanding, I’ve recently launched a survey to look in more detail at the relationship between loot box spending, more general digital spending, gambling and gaming behaviours, and mental wellbeing.

It won’t fix all of the issues described above, but the hope is that beyond simply finding correlations between these sorts of factors, we can also look at the strengths of those associations, and ultimately take a further step down the road to getting a strong evidence base.

And before we start thinking about regulating loot boxes, a strong evidence base is just what we need – one which, ideally, uses objective measures of spending behaviours, as well as stronger measures of mental health and gambling behaviours. In order to do that, we need to get the games industry on board; they hold the data that is key to understanding how games impact our lives.

Only by precisely looking at what games people are actually playing (and for how long), and how much they are spending, can we start to really get an idea of whether there’s a problem with loot boxes, and what sort of gamers they pose a problem for.

If we want the games industry to be open to the idea of sharing data and working collaboratively with independent researchers, we need to avoid a moral panic around loot boxes.

As we’ve seen before, to do so would drive the public discourse around them into unhelpfully simplistic narratives about them being nothing but bad news, and could easily result in games developers shutting off and disengaging from the conversation.

In turn, we risk walking down the path that we saw with the violent video games debate; wasting time and energy driving policy decisions down the wrong path, and finding it difficult to turn the public narrative about video games around when we finally, years down the line, get data that actually speaks to their true effects. For that reason, all of us – scientists, policymakers, journalists and the public at large – need to maintain a level head and a sense of responsible uncertainty.

Loot boxes may turn out to be a real detriment to our mental health, or in time it may become apparent that they aren’t as big an issue as they initially seemed. For now, it’s okay to admit that we don’t know what the real impact of spending money on them is. The science will get there; we just need to give it a chance.

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