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The hidden cost of games

As anyone with gamers in the family will have noticed, games are not simply a one-time purchase nowadays. Gone are the days where you bought your video game from the store, rushed home to play it and once you had finished, you could start all over again for free.

Today, the gaming market is increasingly monetised with in-game purchases. You may have bought the latest Just Dance, and paid upwards of £40 for it, but to unlock the BEST dances you need also need to pay a monthly subscription. It’s only a few pounds of course, but when you start adding up the expense from every game that your children want to play that is ‘just a few pounds’ it can turn into quite a significant financial outlay each month.

And then there are the hidden forms of gambling that make a simple game into an endless money pit, such as 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 show how cool your character is.

The 2020 report ‘Lifting the Lid on Loot Boxes’ from the Universities of Plymouth and Wolverhampton and commissioned by Gamble Aware, noted that, ‘These days, big-budget games have moved to a ‘service’ business model, with developers accruing ongoing revenue via ongoing ‘season pass’ subscriptions or extra, downloadable digital content. These innovations have enabled the game industry to become bigger than film and music combined.’

Some of these purchases and passes are ‘micro’ - costing pennies or a few pounds, but some are very much not micro. In Overwatch, for example, bundles of up to 50 loot boxes can be purchased for £34.99. In FIFA, the most expensive ‘player packs’ can cost more than £15 each.

The study noted that the 12 out of 13 studies on the topic have established "unambiguous" connections to problem gambling behaviour. It also noted that of the 93% of children who play video games, up to 40% opened loot boxes. Clearly this is something that should be of concern to all of us.

Loot boxes are gambling because you pay real money with no guarantee of what you are going to get. This, in itself, is what drives the excitement and anticipation. And the game designers know this, and work hard to make it even more exciting. One anonymous game designer from Overwatch describes how they make the loot boxes ever more desirable. ‘We [build anticipation] in a lot of ways — animations, camera work, spinning plates, and sounds. We even build a little anticipation with the glow that emits from a loot box’s cracks before you open it…. Seeing purple or gold you start to think about what specific legendary or epic you’ve unlocked.”

The government is currently considering legislation around the issue of loot boxes and how they should be classified. Several countries, such as Belgium and Germany, have already moved to classify them as gambling or tighten the legislation around them. With more and more stories coming to light about how gambling addictions fuelled by these games are emptying parents’ accounts of money – such as the teen who spent £3,000 on Fifa - it is surely time for the games companies to put their hands up and accept that their design entices children into a world of gambling – and that is something none of us want.

Sarah Smith

Foundation Speaker


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