Industry Reports

Could Online Video Games Really Turn Children into Gamblers?

Children who play “free” online video games are at risk of becoming actual gamblers, experts have warned, adding that parents should look for hidden addictions. Most video games, including those that can be played for free even on social media, offer players to purchase weapons, armour and other items. In some cases, children buy a secret grab bag without knowing its content, which according to many industry experts and gamers, is similar to gambling.

These concerns were recently expressed by Dr Jane Rigbye, Director of Education at the leading British charity GambleAware. According to her, some online video games, including those that can be accessed and played for free, have content that resembles gambling. Paying real money for in-game items could “normalize” gambling for children, Rigbye explains. These gamble-like features can be seen in a large number of popular games, especially those games which offer registration and download that is completely free of charge. And with video games often being targeted towards a younger audience, there is a real risk that children can develop gambling habits.

GambleAware is one of the largest and most active charities that focuses on minimizing the harmful effects of gambling and betting. Funded by the gambling industry, it has various initiatives aimed at prevention of problem gambling and addiction, including in younger adults and children. Recently, it funded a project carried out by the thinktank Demos for lessons that teach children about the gambling-related harm in British secondary schools. But this is hardly enough and the charity continues to work towards increasing awareness in all age groups.

More importantly, problem gambling is not limited to the United Kingdom and in most societies, it affects both adults and the younger generation. Many countries have never conducted studies on the prevalence of compulsive gambling, but according to a 2016 systematic review of 69 research papers, problem gambling rates in the world vary from 1.1 per cent to 5.8 per cent. The study, carried out by scientists at Psychology Department of the Nottingham Trent University, shows that in some countries, problem gamblers account for over 7 per cent of the population.

Loot Boxes in Video Games Linked to Gambling

A large portion of online video games is adding the so-called loot boxes which require gamers to spend real or in-game money on boxes of unknown consumable items. Usually, these boxes or loot bags include some sort of weaponry, armoury and costumes that help players increase their stats or level up. The most important thing is that generally, gamers do not know what they are buying and while sometimes, these random rewards are exceptionally good, in most cases, they are average at best. Several British media outlets mentioned the extremely popular game Fortnite as a perfect example for that. However, the game replaced its former loot crates (called piñatas) with a Battle Pass, which is no longer a random box. Such boxes are still used in many games, though.

Using loot boxes may be very important, especially for younger players who prefer to rely on their purchasing power rather than their skills and experience. This effectively makes gambling essential to progress in the game, a fact that has been widely discussed since February, around the time of the release of Electronic Arts’ Star Wars Battlefront II. The so-called microtransactions have also been linked to gambling – they are often included in mobile games and free games. The idea is that the player is not required to pay for anything but purchasing items can expand and improve the experience. These microtransactions work well in games such as Pokemon and Clash of Clans, but sometimes, gaming companies are relying too much on them.

In the latest Starwars Battlefront 2 controversy, the game maker removed microtransactions right before the release with the purpose to attract more players. The move turned out to be almost disastrous, with revenues falling short of projections. As a result, Electronic Arts announced over the weekend that it would be introducing microtransactions but only for cosmetic upgrades. While gamers are pleased that the items for sale will not affect the gameplay, the risk that children may start seeing gambling as something normal remains.