Reflecting on Video Games, Loot Boxes, and Their Correlation with Problem Gambling

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Reflecting on Video Games, Loot Boxes, and Their Correlation with Problem Gambling

In 2020, the conversation has been centered around the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on daily life, including an increased reliance on technology. Activities that would typically happen in-person, such as school, work, hanging out with friends, and family gatherings, have shifted online. The COVID-19 crisis and the confinement and other restrictions associated with it present a slew of new life stressors ranging from financial and career impacts to anxiety about the future and the threat of health complications, all of which can increase the risk of problematic gambling behavior [1].

The changes brought about by the pandemic are impacting people of all ages, many of whom play video games. The Game Awards occurs on December 10, 2020, and represent an annual awards ceremony honoring achievements in the video game industry, which helps drive the hype about the most popular games and new releases, just in time for the holiday season. While video games are a great pastime for kids, youth, and even adults, they can, in recent years, also be a spark for many when it comes to problem gambling—ever heard of loot boxes? 

Loot boxes are randomized digital grab bags of in-game items that can be purchased with real currency in titles such as FORTNITE, FIFA, Star Wars™ Battlefront™ II, and many other titles spanning multiple gaming platforms, including mobile phones. Each item that can appear in the loot boxes has predetermined odds ranging from common (the least desirable items to the player) to extremely rare (the most desirable). The contents of each loot box purchased and opened by the player are determined through a random number generator. Similar to a slot machine jackpot, a player can pay for and unlock hundreds of loot boxes in pursuit of a particular item and still not receive it. [2]

Though the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) designates the appropriate audience for each game, it is ultimately up to the end consumer to restrict play. The games themselves have no effective mechanism to limit content based on age. Additionally, the ESRB itself denies that loot boxes are a form of gambling, so we cannot expect this to be factored into the ratings. [3] Understanding the mechanisms that appear in the games, how your child or a loved one is playing the game, and thinking twice about handing over your credit card for an in-game purchase can help prevent the development of gambling addiction. In fact, recently, a class action lawsuit has been filed against Electronic Arts (EA) over the use of loot boxes in its games.[4]

Talk to your kids about what defines gambling and help them understand the odds and the risks. Hope and help are available 24/7 for anyone struggling with problem gambling and their loved ones through our 888-ADMIT-IT HelpLine. 

Going into the holiday and gift-giving season, here are some things to consider:

  • Video games can be a subtle way that gambling addiction can slip into an individual’s life unnoticed. Keeping a limit on how much time and money are spent on video games is an adequate safeguard in the prevention of problem gambling. 
  • There is a correlation between increased anxiety and stress and the occurrence of problematic gambling behavior. Mental health checks are vital to the prevention of problem gambling, especially during the pandemic [1]. 
  • Educating youth on the definition of gambling, the odds, and the risks is a good step in the prevention of problem gambling later in life, regardless of whether they play video games.
  • Know that help and hope are available for anyone suffering from or worried about problem gambling through the completely confidential and 24/7 888-ADMIT-IT HelpLine. Treatment is possible with gambling addiction, and there are resources that can help create the path to recovery.

The FCCG’s 24-hour confidential and multilingual HelpLine may be reached by calling 888-ADMIT-IT (888-236-4848), texting (321) 978-0555, emailing fccg@gamblinghelp.org, initiating a live chat at gamblinghelp.org, or by reaching out to us on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.


[1] Anders Hakansson (2020). Brief research report: Impact of COVID-19 on online gambling -a general population survey during the pandemic. Front. Psychol. 11:02588. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.568543

[2] Kaufmann, Daniel A. “Dr. Daniel A Kaufmann, PhD, LMHC, BACC: Loot Box RNG – A Case Exploration of Video Game Gambling.” Southern Region Problem Gambling Conference. 2018.

[3] Schreier, Jason. “ESRB Says It Doesn’t See ‘Loot Boxes’ As Gambling.” Kotaku, Kotaku, 11 Oct. 2017, kotaku.com/esrb-says-it-doesnt-see-loot-boxes-as-gambling-1819363091.

[4] Miller, Chris. “Electronic Arts Faces Lawsuit In Northern California Regarding FIFA Ultimate Team Gambling: Happy Gamer.” HappyGamer, HappyGamer, 12 Nov. 2020, happygamer.com/electronic-arts-faces-lawsuit-in-northern-california-regarding-fifa-ultimate-team-gambling-92445/.

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