Many players take in-game purchases for granted. The ability to buy items to enhance gameplay is a common feature in many games. But in-game purchases are increasingly being linked to underage problem gambling. Read on to learn why it’s an issue and why stricter rules are on their way.

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What are loot boxes?

When it comes to discussing in-game purchases and underage gambling, loot boxes are a good place to start.

For those not in the know, loot boxes are in-game items which contain a variety of bonuses for players. These range from useful items such as extra weapons or vehicle upgrades to customisable features such as avatars.

Loot boxes are bought with virtual currency, currency which is often purchased with real-world money. However, loot boxes are different from other in-game purchases because the buyer never knows what’s inside the box until after they’ve bought it.

In essence, players are gambling on the quality of the item inside the box. If they get a poor-quality item, they’ll be more likely to buy another one in the hopes of ‘winning’ back their money.

So are loot boxes gambling?

According to Belgium’s Gaming Commission, yes. In 2017, an official from the organisation said that they viewed loot boxes as a form of gambling, and would prefer to ban the monetisation of the system.

And the evidence is there to support this. In 2018, scientists from York found a strong link between loot box purchasing and problem gambling.

Campaigners argue that age restrictions should be placed on these games, preventing the sale of loot boxes to anyone below the age of 18.

What about other in-game purchases?

While other in-game purchases are not without their criticisms, they are not classed as gambling because the buyer knows what they are getting.

Loot boxes are, by their nature, based on chance. You might get a vital weapon upgrade that helps you win the game, or you might get another generic avatar — it’s purely random.

Is underage gambling really a problem?

When we think of underage issues, we tend to think of underage drinking or smoking as the main problems. But underage gambling is a huge problem which affects hundreds of thousands of children in the UK alone.

The UK’s own Gambling Commission last year stated that the number of underage gamblers has quadrupled in two years. Underage gambling is becoming increasingly prevalent, and governmental organisations and campaigners are stepping up the pressure on companies to do more to prevent it.

Most underage gambling is done with friends, or through slot machines or scratchcards. However, some underage gamblers use betting shops or online casinos, despite their illegality.

What rules and safeguards can we expect to see in the future?

Policing underage gambling is tricky, especially in the online world. While pubs and betting shops can ask customers for ID when they try to gamble, online gambling websites have less freedom on this.

However, there are some ways that companies are preventing against this.

Websites like Online Casinos aggregate online gambling sites and are a good source of legitimate online casinos which prevent against underage gambling. Safeguards these sites implement include entering the player’s birthday and, in some cases, their social security number too.

Some online casinos also request credit card statements, passport and driver’s licence details from players before they can register.

But what about loot boxes? There are currently no laws in place in the UK which restrict against the loot box economy (although in 2018 Belgium made loot boxes illegal). Consequently, the onus lies on the game companies themselves to prevent this form of gambling.

EA, in particular, has taken some steps towards this. In 2018, the company removed select items from Star Wars Battlefront II loot boxes after a backlash from players and critics. The move was intended to make gameplay more fair for the players, although loot boxes can still be bought in-game.

And Google’s own Play Store also introduced loot box rules for companies selling games through its site. Brands must now make clear the odds of finding each item to help players better understand how they are spending their money.

More and more countries are implementing rules and safeguards against in-game purchases and underage gambling. However, until these are in place, it is up to game companies to protect their users. Players should be wary when playing online and educate themselves to the risks of gambling addiction.

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