Gaming and gambling in digital games, specifically purchase of loot boxes emerging as a child safety issue in UK

Experts issue vital advice for parents of young gamers about risks of in-game purchases

With children and young people spending much more time at home during lockdown, gaming can often be a lifeline to help them maintain social relationships and reduce loneliness and isolation. However, there is concern that increased time spent on gaming leads to greater exposure to loot boxes and spending by children. Researchers from Newcastle and Loughborough Universities and the national charity Young Gamers and Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM), while exploring children and young people’s experiences of in-game purchases and the effects this has on their wellbeing have advised parents and carers of youngsters who play video games should take steps to control ‘addictive’ in-app purchases.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the research investigates the blurring between gaming and gambling in digital games, specifically around the purchase of loot boxes. Loot boxes are digital items that are bought with real world money and contain random items of unknown value. They have come under increased scrutiny as games of chance, with debate focusing on whether they should be regulated to protect gamers, especially children and young people who access them.

“For some children, the act of opening a loot box is as important as what it contains” explains Dr James Ash, Reader in Technology, Space and Society at Newcastle University, who is leading the research. “Feelings of surprise and suspense lead to repeat purchase of loot boxes. But this is often short-lived.

“Children and young people have told us how they feel disappointment, frustration, anger, and regret at loot box purchases, yet they are still driven to purchase again. This is concerning, given the deliberate design of these mechanisms – the visual stimulus, the randomised contents, and the very unfavourable odds for unboxing rare items – which can lead to repeat loot box purchase.”

One young person told the researchers how he spent nearly £500 in a mobile card game by buying packs of random cards. For him, he was motivated by the game’s leader board. He wanted to progress further and compete with gamers he watched on YouTube. At the peak, he was playing the game for six to seven hours a day. “As soon as I was getting better players, I wanted to get better and better and better and better, like, I couldn’t stop” he explained. “In my head I was like ‘stop’. My guts were saying ‘stop’. Everything was saying ‘stop’, but my brain wasn’t. My brain was like ‘keep opening’. It was hard. It was like when you’re addicted to something. […]. It was hard to stop.”

“We know from interviews with families before lockdown that gaming increased when children spent more time at home such as during the winter months and this often led to increased spending in the game,” explains Dr Ash. “We also know that loot boxes and their contents are attractive to children. The advice helps parents understand why children want to buy loot boxes. Reasons include advancing or speeding up game progress, competing with friends, customising characters with the latest or rarest skins, or participating in special events.”

Dr Sarah Mills, Reader in Human Geography at Loughborough University and Co-Investigator, says: “This research values children and young people’s first-hand experiences, and reveals how they make sense of these gaming systems in their everyday lives at home.

Protecting children and young people

This research will help inform and develop our educational programmes so that all young and vulnerable people are safe from gaming and gambling related harms,” says Amanda Atkinson, Head of Parental Engagement at YGAM. “The enormous variety of games and in-app purchases available can make it confusing for parents to keep on top of safety controls. Through our educational resources, we are focused on providing crucial information to parents so they can identify changes in behaviours and understand the effects this may have on mental and financial well-being,” she added.

Measures they recommend include:

• Disabling pop-ups
• Enabling in-app and on-device parental controls
• Set passwords for in-game purchases
• Restrict and disable in-app purchases
• Set boundaries – for example setting a monthly spending limit