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Video game loot boxes could be linked to problem gambling, B.C. researcher says

A competitor holds a Playstation 4 controller during a July 2019 gaming event in New York. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Bebeto Matthews) A competitor holds a Playstation 4 controller during a July 2019 gaming event in New York. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Bebeto Matthews)
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It’s no secret video games can be addictive, but now researchers are sounding the alarm about aspects of gaming which could be setting players up for other kinds of trouble.

Luke Clark, director at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Gambling Research, took part in a panel on the issue at New Horizons – a conference hosted by the BC Lottery Corporation with a focus on emerging forms of gambling.

"I'm presenting new research on this link around video game loot boxes and problem gambling,” he said.

According to Clark, loot boxes first began emerging in video games about ten years ago and are now featured in nearly every popular franchise.

They are randomized prize generators that players can earn if they have accumulated enough points. and are also available for purchase in many games.

"Effectively, a kind of mystery box inside a video game. It's going to deliver a randomized prize,” Clark said. “You don't know what you're going to get. That might be a new weapon or a new character."

It’s not all that different than playing a slot machine, and in some cases gamers can take virtual items acquired from loot boxes and sell them to other players for real money.

"There's been a lot of concern about whether loot boxes are effectively a disguised form of gambling,” Clark told attendees at the conference.

He said if loot boxes in video games do constitute a form of gambling – which children have access to – there should be a conversation about whether it needs to be regulated.

"We need some attention within game design at making these platforms safer in terms of spending,” he said. “So, the ability for people to view their spending and set spending limits."

According to researchers, those most likely to be addicted to gaming share some common characteristics with potential problem gamblers.

In many cases, they tend to be younger males – a phenomenon also seen in the seemingly ubiquitous world of sports betting.

The only legal site for sports wagering in the province is BCLC’s PlayNow – but many people who participate in that kind of gambling do so through other unregulated online sites.

"We've noticed that the demographics of sports gamblers that have issues are quite different from regular gambling so we do take a look at that and we do have some people that are looking specifically at sports gambling,” said Marie-Noelle Savoie, BCLC’s vice-president of legal compliance and security.

By sharing information at conferences like New Horizons, researchers and regulators hope to stay ahead of the curve.

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