Parents and carers of youngsters who play video games should take steps to control addictive in-app purchases, say experts.

The charity has teamed up with researchers from Newcastle and Loughborough Universities to help parents and carers understand why and control how their children buy items like loot boxes. As schools break up for the summer, YGAM has launched a new ‘Parent Hub’ website providing families with resources, information and activities to help build digital resilience and safeguard their children.

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

The advice builds on research at the universities which explores children and young people’s experiences of in-game purchases and the effects this has on their wellbeing.

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 or in-game currency 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 purchases.”

Dr Sarah Mills, Loughborough University

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.”

YGAM has responded to the concerns of many parents during lockdown, as children are spending more time playing digital games online, and insists it is more important than ever to understand the potential risks associated with gaming and gambling.

The new website helps parents to understand why children are drawn to purchase loot boxes, from enjoying the surprise and suspense of opening a loot box and the desire to win something rare; to receiving specific items that give an in-game advantage or boost their social status. It also covers the potential harm loot boxes can cause, such exposure to and normalisation of gambling-style systems, emotional harm, such as feeling anger or rage in response to opening a loot box, and financial harm from repeat spending. The advice also shows how parents can take important steps to safeguard their children, including the use of parental controls and identifying potential signs of harm.

Gaming in lockdown

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.

“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.

“These views are important to capture, especially when working with relevant charities that support children, young people and families directly. The educational work of charities such as YGAM is more important than ever during the current challenges of lockdown.”

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 wellbeing.”

Parents can access the advice at