A parent guide to loot boxes
31 May, 2024
3 minute read

A parent guide to loot boxes

Parent Zone’s report, ‘The Rip-Off Games’, found that more than three-quarters of children (76 per cent) believe that online games try to make you spend as much money as possible – and almost half (49 per cent) believe that online video games are only fun when you spend money.

Loot boxes are a common way to encourage in-game spending. In 2018, MP’s called on the government to classify loot boxes – a key feature of many online games – as gambling. This would ban their sale to children. Here’s everything you need to know. 


What are loot boxes?

Loot boxes are virtual treasure chests containing undisclosed items that can be used in games. These might be ‘skins’ – ways of customising characters or weapons. The contents may affect progress through the game, or simply be designed to convey status.

Thanks to cloud computing, the business model of what we used to think of as video games has changed. Games used to be bought on disk. Now there is the opportunity to offer constant new content and updates, and to get players to pay for it in-game. Loot boxes are a key way of doing this.

Listen to Parent Zone's podcast, Tech Shock.

Why are they so popular?

Loot boxes aren’t needed to play the games in which they appear – but their contents can still be very tempting to a child. Getting a ‘legendary skin’ from a Fortnite loot box can be a significant status symbol. Loot boxes in FIFA can unlock outstanding footballers. But this is a lottery: very few games reveal how often the more highly prized items are ‘won’. 

Many games use psychological techniques borrowed from the gambling industry, ‘nudging’ players to keep spending money. Our research found that younger children were especially vulnerable to these methods.

Sign up to our newsletter and get the best of Parent Zone to your inbox. Find out more

What do parents need to be aware of?

Connection to gambling

While academic research into the links between gaming and gambling has not proved that loot boxes (which are after all a recent invention) cause addiction, researchers are worried enough to urge caution. A quick web search reveals horror stories of people developing loot box addiction and spending thousands of pounds trying – and failing – to get the items they’d hoped for.

Despite resembling a lottery, loot boxes are not classified as gambling in the UK. So far, the UK Gambling Commission has accepted industry arguments that because the items inside are only used in the game, loot boxes shouldn’t be seen as gambling. There has also been no mention of this issue in the latest DCMS announcement on the Online Safety Bill.  

Other countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and China, have taken a different view and moved to classify loot boxes as gambling or to restrict them. MPs and game developers have urged a similar reassessment here.

Card details

Check that your card details aren’t saved on any gaming device. It’s easy for a child to feel pressured into buying a new skin for their character or a new weapon – or simply to click the wrong button and make an accidental purchase. Be aware of having payment methods (vouchers, prepaid cards, debit/credit card) linked to their account.

Spot something that doesn't look quite right? You can email librarian@parentzone.org.uk to submit comments and feedback.

This article was last updated on 26/08/22.



Related Articles