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Loot boxes similar to “problem gambling” to avoid regulation, the report says

A new study tries to connect the dots between opening video game loot boxes and replicating
Enlarge / A new study tries to link the dots between opening loot boxes for video games and replicating “problem gambling”.

Getty Images / Aurich Lawson / Sam Machkovech

We have had a lot to say about looting boxes in video games, and in the wake of our own reviews and rants about their growing prominence, regulation and public control have followed. Researchers have also entered the loot box conversation, but a new report published by researchers on Friday seeks to answer a key question that they claim has been left untouched by other academics: Why do players buy stolen goods?

In an attempt to answer that question, the report, commissioned by the group group BeGambleAware for money protection, suggests that motivation for purchasing prey is directly correlated with “problem gambling”. These data drive the report’s conclusion: Regulators should use the same rules to loot boxes as they do on other forms of gambling, because despite apparent differences, they have enough in common to deserve stricter controls.

From Skinner boxes to FIFA card

Much of the study, co-authored by four British universities and one private money society firm, summarizes and describes both the history of revenue generation and the subsequent setback, either from fans, critics or regulators. The report also outlines the amount of internal regulation carried out by gaming companies in response. (Ars was not contacted before the publication of this study, so we only learned today that we are among the quotes quoted.)

The study hits many of the common loot box talking points. As the classic Skinner box scenario demonstrated, “variable reinforcement plans” (VRR, or the expectation that the reward is random) have a different psychological impact than if a player knows what they are buying directly (a classic loot box move). In addition, game manufacturers have been concerned with making it clear that the aesthetic similarities of these boxes with slot machines in reality (such as flashing lights and satisfying sound effects) are not random.

But the lots of stories and papers rarely explored “the motivations for purchasing loot box”, says today’s report, which surprised the authors. “This is in contrast to gambling research, where we know that gambling is driven by a number of overlapping motivations,” write researchers. Therefore, the report’s largest findings are in two tables. The first, which combines data from various existing studies around the English-speaking world of a total of 7771 adults and children, “establishes a significant correlation between the costs of loot boxes and the score for gambling.”

An extra table digs deeper by sending a survey to 441 UK players, whose answers are as detailed as answers from a sentence; this was followed by drilling down on 28 of these respondents with hour-long interviews. Researchers analyzed the responses via reflexive thematic analysis to break out motivations for spending money on loot boxes in video games.

A page from the April 2 report commissioned by BeGambleAware regarding motivation for loot box.
Enlarge / A page from the April 2 report commissioned by BeGambleAware regarding motivation for loot box.


The above summary image is followed by specific quotes that support each reasoning. Among these, a quote suggests that a “cosmetic” purchase comes with a perceived competitive advantage: “You want to compete with the other players, not just in the game, but with your skin.” A number of quotes pointed to the social pressure associated with potential lootbox purchases, such as: “You can brag about the guys at work, like: ‘I just packed so and so in a package yesterday,’ or to decide with friends in an online session to buy loot boxes at the same time.

“Existing criteria for regulating games”

While that table of potential causes varies from the psychological spectrum, today’s report points to a key unifying factor: perceived value. That is, loot boxes are not easily written off as worthless points in a game.

A notion of value “was consistently linked to [in-game] species rarity, “the report said. The rarer the catch, the higher the value. This can even have direct financial implications, as some participants hoped to get lucky and remove the goods that were available to buy directly in the retail trade, but which were normally too expensive. In some cases, this is the only way players can afford the item. In other cases, they hoped to later swap lucky wins for a total profit. This type of observation suggests that many loot boxes meet existing criteria for game regulation. “

This statement clarified that “no single dominant motivation” can be attributed to why players can buy loot boxes. Still, value is a factor, and the authors state that loot box purchases have a statistically significant association with problem gambling behavior (“equal to or stronger than those between problem gambling and well-established comorbidities, including depression, drug use, and current alcohol dependence”). The report emphasizes the authors’ position that regulators should step in, and quickly.

They come to this conclusion for a few reasons. First, the authors of this report take great care to remove the presumed notion that the small percentage of players who buy large amounts of microtransactions such as loot boxes (often called “whales”) are necessarily rich. Their data do seems to show that somewhere between 33% and 50% of the users who spend the most money, who pay over $ 100 per month, show “problematic gambling patterns”. In other words, the data seem to say that large lending funds are more likely to have gambling than they are with high salaries.

“The bias of exchange box buyers – especially towards those who are younger and male – is particularly worrying when framed along with the discovery that high-cost ‘whales’ for loot tend to be players rather than wealthy individuals,” the report continues. These demographic trends are likely to overlap with psychological drivers, such as impulsivity and game-related cognitions. This relationship can result in disproportionate risks for specific groups and cohorts of players – suggesting that looting box legislation or controls may be useful in minimizing damage. . “

“Not out of reach of national powers”

The report’s examination of what steps regulators can take is a little darker, partly because it paints a picture not only of inconsistent European legislation on looting boxes (where games such as FIFA has been regulated, but similar marketing activity on Valve’s Steam store has not done so), but also the nasty steps game manufacturers can take in the face of increased regulatory control.

“Whatever form the policy takes, we must be aware that there is now a whole box of psychological tricks available to unscrupulous developers,” the report said. “Long-term risk reduction, as proposed above, will require more research, new educational approaches and an updated framework for consumer protection. However, such recommendations do not preclude policy measures on loot boxes.”

Therefore, the report leans towards starting with a direct ban on paid loot boxes in software – as in, the easily defined practice of “any game-related purchase with a chance-based outcome” – or at least requires more transparent “odds” statements about the probability of specific items in the game in these loot boxes (instead of saying that a “legendary” prize has a very low chance of appearing, but still omits prize-specific sub-percentages, since not all legendary items are created equal).

Enforcing such rules would not be an immediate regulatory slam dunk, the report admits. “At first glance, such observations suggest that regulating all looting boxes as gambling can be a viable solution to avoid the problem of conflict policy. It will bring all looting boxes under the umbrella of existing gambling regulation – and that is the strategy many favor, including over 40,000. signatories to a recent petition in the UK. However, such an approach would be a radical revision of gambling legislation – but once again, life is not that easy when it comes to legislative fine print. “In fact, a call from the UK Parliament in 2019 to ban looting boxes so far failed to bring about a comprehensive action.

Despite potential pitfalls, the report argues that such regulations will at least address specific “money-sword” statements from game makers and provide more formal provisions for public research and education on manipulative economies in the game. Better regulation can also remind gaming companies that “when they have few other options (when an industry does not effectively regulate itself), these types of predator strategies are not beyond the reach of national powers.”

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