Gamers or gamblers? Study shows how video game habits can turn into problem gambling

YORK, United Kingdom — Playing video games can seem harmless enough, and when you’re in quarantine, it may be the only thing to do. Some games offer players the ability to spend real money to help their fictional characters succeed. That’s where a new study says the trouble begins. Researchers in England find some video game habits may unknowingly lead gamers to become problem gamblers.

The study by the University of York reveals nearly 20 percent of players are doing something that relates to both gaming and gambling. This includes games that offer token wagering, real money gaming, and “social casino” games. Dr. David Zendle says this link to gambling goes beyond previous warnings about “loot boxes,” which offer players a random assortment of prizes but can cost real or in-game currency to open.

“These findings suggest that the relationship between gaming and problem gambling is more complex than many people think,” Zendle says in a university release.

Although the random chance tied to loot boxes may entice people to keep spending money, the study says they’re not the only ways games encourage compulsive behavior.

“When we go beyond loot boxes, we can see that there are multiple novel practices in gaming that incorporate elements of gambling. All of them are linked to problem gambling, and all seem prevalent.”

A hidden public health risk?

Researchers studied just under 1,100 people which generally resembled the U.K. population, based on age, race, and gender. The results find 18.5 percent of the participants play games that promote gambling habits. Study authors warn this could create a new “public health risk.” They add that these video games also slipping past the rules set up to monitor gambling websites.

“There are currently loopholes that mean some gambling related elements of video games avoid regulation,” Zendle explains. “For example social casinos are ‘video games’ that are basically a simulation of gambling: you can spend real money in them, and the only thing that stops them being regulated as proper gambling is that winnings cannot be converted into cash.”

Laws for video games?

Could new legislation change the way your favorite video game does business? Zendle says governments need to taken a tougher stance on games that charge you cash and hand back more mystery than actual rewards.

In 2019, researchers urged British lawmakers to ban the sale of loot boxes to children. They are also recommending that the entire practice of offering loot boxes should fall under the definition of gambling.

The study appears in the journal PeerJ.

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