Video game loot boxes are a growing cause of concern among parents and legislators.
Efforts to curtail or manage the issue of online gambling in children and teenagers have been outlined in an Oireachtas committee report this month. The report discusses how the advertising and strategies employed by gambling companies contribute to the development of problematic gambling habits among young people. This has given rise to a discussion on the use of loot boxes in video games played by children.
A loot box is usually a sealed mystery “box” which can be opened for a random collection of in-game items such as virtual weapons or cosmetic costumes. Users of games can purchase a loot box using real money, often paid by credit card. Much like the concept of the scratch card, the opening of the box will reveal whether you have won something worthwhile or something of no value to you.
Traditionally reserved for a smaller number of video games, loot boxes are now a feature of many games. Even old favorites like FIFA are getting in on the act – players can now purchase a loot box of potential football players. The principle is not unlike a virtual version of the card game Match Attax, also immensely popular among young people.
The question is whether the introduction of loot boxes into video games traditionally played by children and teenagers is problematic. A report released last month by the universities of Plymouth and Wolverhampton suggests that loot boxes in children’s video games “are structurally and psychologically akin to gambling”. The report’s authors stated that more than 93% of children play video games and 40% of these players are engaged with loot boxes.
Whenever anyone openly criticizes the actions of game developers, a cohort of people, often those who are pro-gaming or belong to gaming communities, will demand evidence of a link between gaming and societal problems. In the past, I have debated whether gaming promotes aggression in children, whether it increases children’s exposure to sexualization and whether it contributes to problematic gambling. As with any cause-and-effect debate, it becomes impossible to prove that exposure to one variable directly impacts another, so the argument goes nowhere.
However, what our knowledge of psychology and neuroscience tells us is that psychoactive behaviors, like gambling, create a dopamine surge in the brain and can provide a gateway to other behaviors that can be problematic.
It is generally accepted that gambling is a worrying issue in society. The advent of online gambling has created an ease of access that increases the risk of children and young people developing concerning relationships with this activity. A young person presenting with a gambling problem would be relatively rare in my practice. But I see a significant number of young people who have become reliant on activities that create dopamine surges and, as a result, develop behaviors that prove problematic.
For younger people, the phrase ‘problematic use’ is preferable to addiction, as with gambling there is no substance on which the user becomes dependent. However, seeking the dopamine surge created by gambling, pornography and other neuro-active behaviors is more common.
It is not just the gaming world that is susceptible to dopamine dependency – many other subtler activities can develop into worrying habits. If we consider online technologies like social media, a lot of the software designs these platforms employ are based on gambling principles. When we post something on social media, there is a similar dynamic to the slot machine in a casino.
When we refresh the page to gauge our audience’s reaction to our post, albeit a picture of our dog, child or dinner, we enter into a dynamic akin to an emotional slot machine. As we swipe to refresh, we are consumed by thoughts such as ‘what response did I get’. The same could be said for emails. When we see the red notification icon on our phone, we don’t know whether the notification is news about the job opportunity we have been waiting for or whether it is to inform us that our TV license is overdue. These notifications are not too dissimilar to the loot boxes.
In a world awash with opportunities for dopamine hits, banning loot boxes or not allowing gambling companies to advertise until after 9pm seems futile considering the tsunami-like tide of triggering sources. Therefore the recent Oireachtas report, which suggests that gambling companies be banned from advertising until after the watershed, is symptomatic of how far behind the curve we are in terms of managing these issues.
Young people no longer watch terrestrial TV, so the watershed issue has become obsolete. Also, there are nine English Premiership clubs whose jerseys are sponsored by betting companies. So even if we ban pre-watershed betting advertising on TV, children will still buy jerseys with logos advertising these companies.
The genie is out of the bottle for smart technologies, so perhaps the aspiration for regulation has come too late. The concept of age verification has been bandied about for years, yet we seem no closer to introducing it. As is the case with so many other technology issues, perhaps we should concentrate on changing the behavior of the users, not the developers.
It’s time to have open and honest discussions in school and at home about the reality of gambling. There needs to be an alternative narrative to the one being pushed by betting company adverts which paint a picture of gambling as harmless, fun and lucrative. We need to support the development of media literacy among young people so they can see how advertising strategies are designed to reel in viewers.
We also need to address problem gambling in a curious, not accusatory way. If you feel your child or teenager is developing a gambling habit, going in ‘all guns blazing’ will not work, it will only serve to drive it underground. I have heard stories of young people who amounted eye-watering debt through gambling. They believed that they could ‘gamble their way out of it’ only to find themselves deeper and deeper into debt.
They didn’t tell their parents earlier was that they feared their parent’s reaction and what retribution would follow. As a result, they missed out on getting support from the adults in their lives, which could have helped them avoid the messy situation that transpired.
Perhaps the answer to protecting our children from developing gambling problems is not banning loot boxes or limiting TV advertising to after the watershed or making on-street bookmakers redesign their shopfronts not to look so appealing. This is like tending to a corner of the garden as a jungle grows around us. We need to equip children and young people with the skills of critiquing the ‘easy money’ message that gambling companies promote and give an honest appraisal of the risks.
Part of the solution is not about creating something new but doubling down on simple home truths. I grew up with two mantras that have served me well: ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch’ and ‘If it’s too good to be true, it probably is’.
Dr. Colman Noctor is a child psychotherapist