57% of Britons believe loot boxes should be classified as a form of gambling

More than half of the UK population believe that loot boxes in video games are a form of gambling.

According to the UK Gambling Regulation Consumer Survey commissioned by Compare.bet, more than half of the population believe loot boxes in video games should be classified as a form of gambling.

The survey polled a nationally representative sample of 5,000 adults in the UK across a range of age groups.

Public perception of loot boxes

Survey participants were asked: “Do you think that ‘loot boxes’ in computer games should be classified as gambling to protect young people? In video games, a loot box is an in-game purchase consisting of a virtual container that awards players with items and modifications based on chance.”

Of those with an opinion on the topic, 56.96% of respondents responded with yes and 13.04% said no, while 30% were unsure or didn’t know.

  18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55+
Yes 50.99% (282) 56.73% (489) 54.42% (443) 57.56% (514) 59.64% (1120)
No 21.34% (118) 19.03% (164) 17.69% (144) 10.30% (92) 7.14% (134)
Unsure/ Don’t know 27.67% (153) 24.25 (209) 27.89% (227) 32.14% (287) 33.23% (624)

Looking closer at the responses, the majority of all age groups surveyed responded with a yes, while a significant chunk of respondents were unsure.

In the 18-24-year-old age group, 50.99% of respondents said loot boxes should be classified as a form of gambling, while 21.34% said no. Similarly, 56.73% of respondents aged 25-34 said yes while 19.03% said no.

The 35-44-year age group saw 54.42% of respondents respond with yes, while 17.69% said no. This was mirrored by the 45-55 age range where 57.56% of respondents said yes while 10.30% said no.

Of the respondents aged 55 and over, 59.64% agreed that loot boxes should be classed as a form of gambling, while just 7.14% said no.

The majority of respondents said loot boxes should be classed as gambling which highlights that the majority of the population is aware of what a video game loot box is.

However, across all ranges, a large proportion of respondents were unsure, which suggests that this is an issue not everyone is aware of and that the population may benefit from some more education on loot boxes in video games.

What is a loot box?

A loot box in a video game is essentially a digital microtransaction in a video game, where a player can pay real money for a digital box which contains a selection of randomized items for use in-game and these items are only revealed to players after payment has been made.

These can range from cosmetic items such as outfits or in-game items to help give players a competitive edge.

Some examples of loot boxes include player packs in the FIFA series, loot crates in Overwatch, and airdrops in the Call of Duty series.

Are loot boxes a form of gambling?

Depending on who you ask some people will say loot boxes are just an aspect of a video game, while others, along with regulators and health experts, believe them to be an intrusive form of gambling.

In 2018, Belgium banned the inclusion of loot boxes in video games as they were found to be “in violation of gambling legislation”, according to the Belgium Gaming Commission.

The ban means that companies like EA, who publish popular game series such as FIFA, Star Wars Battlefront and Battlefield, would not be allowed to include loot boxes in their games in Belgium.

In Belgium, failure to comply with this can result in a fine of €800,000 (£697,000) and up to five years in prison for the publishers.

Last year the UK Gambling Commission clarified that loot boxes are not seen as a form of gambling as there is no official way to monetise what is inside of them. According to the Commission, a prize has to be money or have monetary value in under to fall under gambling legislation.

Children, gaming, and loot boxes

A huge part of the controversy around loot boxes in video games comes down to the fact games enjoyed by children and young adults feature loot boxes and as there is an element of chance involved, younger players may be tempted to keep spending money in order to get a better result.

In 2019, at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport select committee, Gambling Commission chief executive Neil McCarthur admitted that there were “significant concerns” around children playing video games in which there were elements of expenditure and chance.

There have been several cases in recent years where children have spent hundreds of pounds on in-game purchases which includes loot boxes.

In 2018, the BBC  interviewed a parent whose four children spent almost £550 buying player packs on FIFA over a three-week period. The children’s father, Thomas Carter, only realised the purchases were made after his bank card was declined because his bank account was empty.

Carter said: “You pay £40 for the game, which is a lot of money in itself, but then the only way to get a great team is essentially by gambling. “They spent £550 and they still never got their favourite player, Lionel Messi.”

But this doesn’t just affect children, a 2018 Eurogamer article highlighted the example of a FIFA player who used GDPR to find out everything the publisher EA had on him. Michael, 32, from the UK, discovered that he had spent over $10,000 in two years on FIFA Ultimate Team, buying in-game currency and player packs.

Demands to class loot boxes as a form of gambling

Yesterday, the UK’s House of Lords issued a report calling for a massive regulatory overhaul of the UK gambling sector and called for loot boxes to be classed as a form of gambling immediately. The Lords report is wide-ranging, covering the entire gambling industry, but focuses on new forms of gambling, and those targeted towards children.

The Lords said loot boxes should be classified as “games of chance”, bring them under the 2005 Gambling Act. “If a product looks like gambling and feels like gambling, it should be regulated as gambling,” their report said.

An accompanying statement also said: “The government must act immediately to bring loot boxes within the remit of gambling legislation and regulation.”

The report also said: “There is academic research which proves that there is a connection, though not necessarily a causal link, between loot box spending and problem gambling.”

The Lords report concluded that ministers should make new regulations that explicitly state that loot boxes are games of chance and that the same definition should be applied to any other in-game items paid for with real money.

The link between loot boxes and problem gambling

Dr David Zendle, who spoke to the Lords committee that compiled the report, said that spending on loot boxes either causes problem gambling, due to their similarity – or that people who have gambling problems spend heavily on loot boxes. Zendle warned that the connection between loot boxes and gambling was “extraordinarily robust.”

The correlation between loot boxes and problem gambling was also highlighted by NHS mental health director Claire Murdoch back in January.

Murdoch called upon gaming companies to help clamp down on the risk of gambling addiction by banning loot boxes from their games. Murdoch said that game companies risk “setting kids up for addiction” by building gambling products into their games.

This call to action came after the NHS confirmed the opening of a new treatment centre, along with 14 new NHS gambling clinics, to address the links between mental health and addiction.

Murdoch said: “Frankly no company should be setting kids up for addiction by teaching them to gamble on the content of these loot boxes. No firm should sell to children loot box games with this element of chance, so yes those sales should end.

“Young people’s health is at stake, and although the NHS is stepping up with these new, innovative services available to families through our Long Term Plan, we cannot do this alone, so other parts of society must do what they can to limit risks and safeguard children’s wellbeing.”

Murdoch urged game companies to implement the following measures:

  • Ban sales of games with loot boxes that encourage children to gamble
  • Introduce fair and realistic spending limits to prevent people from spending thousands in games
  • Make clear to users what percentage chance they have of obtaining the items they want before they purchase loot boxes
  • Support parents by increasing their awareness on the risks of in-game spending

Could a change be imminent?

It is very likely that loot boxes will be classified as a form of gambling sometime in the near future.

Government ministers, health experts, parents, and players have all voiced the concern that loot boxes in video games rely on predatory tactics to entice both young players and adults to spend real money for randomized in-game items. The only party that seems to benefit from the implementation of loot boxes in video games are the game companies who code them into the game.

While the UK’s final decision on loot boxes as a form of gambling may not be as strict as the measures imposed in Belgium, yesterday’s Lords report may act as a catalyst to help spark a significant change and bring loot boxes under the regulatory oversight of the Gambling Commission.

But as the UK Gambling Regulation Consumer Survey revealed, there is still a large number of the population who are unsure of what to think, which suggests that more education on the topic is required. 

Ministers, health experts, regulators and game companies need to come together to shine an even brighter light on loot boxes in video games.

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