YGAM are delighted to be supporting academics at Newcastle University for a research project on young people and gambling style systems. The partnership and the subsequent findings will help further develop our educational resources to inform, educate, safeguard and build digital resilience among young people. Today we have a guest blog from the two academics leading the research on progress so far.

Dr Rachel Gordon and Dr James Ash, Newcastle University

Here at Newcastle University, we are researching children and young people’s experiences of in-game purchases, with a particular interest in a certain type of in-game purchase – a loot box.

What is a loot box?

A loot box is like a virtual lucky dip, containing randomised items of unknown value. Typically, you buy a loot box with real world money. You do not know its exact contents or the monetary value of those contents at the point of purchase. Many loot boxes contain items of differing rarities (for example, from common to legendary) and the rarer items (and therefore more valuable items) are much more difficult to find. This can lead to repeat purchasing if a particular item is sought after.

Loot boxes have come under increased scrutiny by regulators and charities that are concerned that they are a form of gambling, given that they are purchased with money and involve systems of chance. Loot boxes are found in many console, mobile, and PC games – and some of these games are purposefully marketed to children and young people. Loot boxes are not always called loot boxes. Games often have their own names for them, from mystery boxes and card packs, to fortune cookies and chests. This can make it difficult for parents and carers to grasp exactly what their child is purchasing in a game.

Why do loot boxes matter to children and young people?

As part of the research, we have been working with families in the North East to find out why in-game purchases matter to children and young people. What do children and young people think about loot boxes? What do they like and dislike about them? What makes them repeatedly buy loot boxes?

For some young people, the very action of opening a loot box can be as important as what is inside the loot box. They enjoy the feelings of surprise and suspense that this involves. Young people told us that they feel a ‘buzz’ when they unbox something that they want or perceive to be valuable. One young person said ‘My heart stopped!’ when he thought he had unpacked a top player card in FIFA. The animation and corresponding sounds of opening a loot box are designed to elicit these feelings. Animations might build in a delay, with flashing lights and shooting items to build up suspense. They might tease at what kind of item is contained within the box, giving away key details such as level of rarity before revealing the actual item. They might also show ‘near misses’, running through the various items that could be won. This may be problematic where it encourages young people to make another loot box purchase.

Dr James Ash, Newcastle University

For others, they told us about the disappointment, frustration, and even anger they feel when they unbox something that they don’t want, already have, or consider to be of low value compared to the amount paid for the loot box. A few young people said that they feel like they have wasted their money when opening loot boxes. Some young people thought that the advertised drop rates for items in loot boxes were too low, only giving them a very small chance of unboxing a rare item. They thought this was unfair. One young person said they felt like they had an addiction to loot boxes: ‘As soon as I was getting better players, I wanted to get better and better and better and better, like, I couldn’t stop. 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.

There are many reasons why children and young people keep buying loot boxes in the games they play. For some, they want a particular item, so they want to keep purchasing loot boxes until they unbox it (or until they run out of money or in-game currency). Often, they see their friends or other influencers (like YouTube or Twitch streamers) purchase loot boxes. This helps to normalise the activity, create a buzz around loot box opening, and even showcase the items available to win. Loot box opening can become a social activity between friends, often with a competitive edge, which leads to repeat purchase. Some in-game items are only available via loot boxes, so this exclusivity – and the social status this can impart (e.g. you are a dedicated or lucky player) – matters to children and young people. Some loot box winnings can deliver in-game advantages that help players to make progress in their game. Some can be sold for ‘profit’ or traded, which may form an important part of the gaming experience for young people.

What is next?

The research still underway, we are continuing to gather evidence to help us understand how in-game purchases like loot boxes may blur the line between gaming and gambling and what implications this may have for children and young people. We will be speaking to parents and carers to understand their views, working with children and young people who make loot box purchases, and interviewing game developers to gain an insight into how loot box systems are designed. The research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and will run until 2021. If you are interested in the research, please contact Dr Rachel Gordon: rachel.gordon@newcastle.ac.uk