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What are loot boxes?

MPs recently called on the government to classify loot boxes – a key feature of many online games – as gambling. This would ban their sale to children.

Loot boxes are a key feature of many online games. They have come under fire for using predatory techniques to push players to spend money while gaming. Some researchers have noted an overlap between loot boxes and problem gambling. 

With 93 per cent of children in the UK currently playing games, this affects many families.

Parent Zone’s latest 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.

Here’s what 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 ways of customising characters or weapons (‘skins’). These contents may affect progress through the game, or simply be designed to convey status.

With cloud computing, the business model of what we used to think of as video games has changed. Games used to be bought on disk, in boxes. Now there is the opportunity to offer constant new content and updates, and to get players to pay for it. 

Do loot boxes pose a risk?

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.

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.

What does the law say?

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. 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 have urged a similar reassessment here.

What can parents do?

Parents should be aware that children are often pressurised to spend money on loot boxes. 

Show an interest in the games they play. If your child is being exposed to loot boxes, talk to them about why they think they are being asked to spend money without knowing what they’ll get in return. 

Buying a loot box occasionally isn’t going to lead to problem gambling. The concern comes when the habit gets out of control. Make sure to get involved and be aware of what your child is spending. 

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

Where to get help

  • The National Gambling Helpline is committed to supporting people suffering from problem gambling. You can get in touch by phone or live chat to get information, advice and support.

  • BeGambleAware offers free, confidential support to anyone suffering from problem gambling, and to people concerned about or affected by someone else’s behaviour.

  • The Priory can offer support and information on most forms of addiction, including gambling.


Worried about the gambling-like features in online games?

Visit the Gaming or Gambling hub for expert advice and information from Parent Zone and GambleAware.