Visual effects increase attraction and sense of winning of gambling


The sights and sounds of winning on a slot machine may increase your desire to play – and your memories of winning big, according to new research by University of Alberta scientists.

The study, led by Professor Marcia Spetch in the Department of Psychology, shows that people prefer to play on virtual slot machines that provide casino-related cues, such as the sound of coins dropping or symbols of dollar signs.

“These results show how cues associated with money or winning can make slot machines more attractive and can even make bigger wins more memorable,” said Spetch.

“Such cues are prevalent in casinos and likely increase the allure of slot machine gambling.”

The researchers also found that people preferred to play on machines with these cues no matter how risky the machine was, and regardless of when the sound or visual effects appeared.

“Attraction to slot machines and memory for winning can be influenced by factors other than the amount of money won on a slot machine,” explained Christopher Madan, co-author from University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom and former PhD student of Spetch.

“People should be aware that their attraction and sense of winning may be biased.”

According to the Canadian Gaming Association, 98 percent of Canadians gamble for fun and entertainment. Alberta is home to 28 casinos and more than 14,000 slot machines. In 2019, revenue generated by the gaming industry in Alberta was $2.7 billion.

The study, led by Professor Marcia Spetch in the Department of Psychology, shows that people prefer to play on virtual slot machines that provide casino-related cues, such as the sound of coins dropping or symbols of dollar signs.

This research was conducted in collaboration with Elliot Ludvig from Warwick University in the United Kingdom and with Yang Liu, a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alberta.

Funding: Funding for this research is provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Alberta Gambling Research Institute (AGRI).

What are loot boxes?

Loot boxes are a relatively new way for players to spend money in video games. In recent years, loot boxes have mushroomed from a relatively obscure and unknown in-game mechanism to an industry that is predicted to generate up to $30 billion in 2018 alone [1].

There is concern among both regulators and researchers that spending money on loot boxes may be linked to gambling-related harm among both adults and children.

Making ‘microtransactions’ of small amounts of real-world money for virtual items or other advantages has been common in video games for many years.

For example, players of the 2011 action game Dynasty Warriors 7 can pay $0.99 to $1.99 to unlock exclusive in-game weapons; the role-playing game Tales of Xillia lets players pay $3 to buy ‘Level Up’ packs that make their characters stronger; players of the city-planning game SimCity Buildit can pay small amounts of money to increase the efficiency of their construction efforts.

Even over a decade ago in 2005, players of the mobile game Puzzle Pirates could pay real-world money to buy ‘doubloons’, an in-game currency that could be spent on virtual items and services [2]. Similarly, in 2006, players of the open-world game Oblivion were able to make a microtransaction to buy cosmetic armour for their in-game horses [3].

However, in recent years, a new kind of microtransaction has become increasingly prevalent in video games: the loot box. In the examples given above, players who had paid real-world money all knew what they would get in return for this expenditure: they were buying additional levels, or doubloons, or weapons, or costumes or horse armour.

By contrast, when players buy a loot box, they are not paying for something specific—they are, instead, paying for something that appears to be randomly selected from a list.

For example, in the popular first-person shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, players can pay $2.49 to open a sealed ‘weapon case’. Cases may contain extremely rare and valuable ‘skins’ that change the appearance of players’ weapons.

In fact, some of these skins are so prestigious and uncommon that they can be re-sold on secondary markets for many thousands of dollars [4]. However, when paying to open a loot box, players of Counter-Strike also run the risk that the case they have paid to open contains an unappealing or common item, rather than a rare or desirable one.

There is no way for them to tell what they will get when they pay their money. Similarly, players of the football game FIFA 19 pay real-world money to purchase ‘player packs’ that contain new footballers for their teams.

These packs may contain rare and valuable players that improve their team’s performance or they may not. In either case, players do not know what a pack contains when they pay real-world money for it.

Loot boxes and problem gambling

The behaviour outlined above involves staking real-world money on the chance outcome of a future event. Several international regulatory authorities have noted that there are striking similarities between this behaviour and gambling.

This has led to various investigations across the globe of whether loot boxes in video games are in contravention of existing gambling legislation and therefore constitute an illegal and unlicensed form of gambling [57].

Connected to these arguments about the legal definition of loot boxes are questions about harm, and more specifically, harm to children. As the UK Gambling Commission themselves note in [8]:

many parents are not interested in whether an activity meets a legal definition of ‘gambling’. Their main concern is whether there is a product out there that could present a risk to their children.

The specific form of gambling-related harm that is most commonly associated with loot boxes is problem gambling. Problem gambling refers to disordered and excessive gambling activities that are so extreme that they lead to significant problems in an individual’s personal, family and professional lives.

Problem gambling is linked to factors such as depression, anxiety, bankruptcy and suicide [911]. One key pathway to the development of problem gambling is via conditioning: the more individuals are exposed to the arousal associated with gambling activities, the more they come to expect and require this excitement, leading to the disordered and excessive patterns of gambling-related spending mentioned above [12].

This pathway to problem gambling is considered to be a particular risk among adolescents. Indeed, exposure to gambling activities in childhood is an important predictor of problem gambling among adults [13].

There are good theoretical reasons to believe that loot boxes might be ‘psychologically akin’ to gambling themselves, and exposure to them might therefore cause problem gambling among children. In [14], Griffiths specifies five characteristics that differentiate gambling from other risk-related behaviours. These are:

  • (1)The exchange of money or something of value.
  • (2)A future event determines the results of this exchange, and the outcome of this event is unknown at the time that a bet is made.
  • (3)Chance at least partly determines the outcome of the exchange.
  • (4)Losses can be avoided by simply not taking part.
  • (5)Winners gain at the sole expense of losers.

In [15], Drummond & Sauer undertook a systematic analysis of 22 video games that feature loot boxes to determine the extent to which they fulfilled these characteristics.

They found that 10 of the 22 video game loot boxes fulfilled all of the criteria listed above, and many more fulfilled most of them.

They found that loot boxes not only shared ‘important structural and psychological similarities with gambling’, but that ‘100% allow for (if not actively encourage) underage players to engage with these systems’. Indeed, Drummond and Sauer concluded that the presence of loot boxes in video games might therefore be forming a ‘ripe breeding ground’ for the development of problem gambling among children.

Empirical research supports the existence of this effect in adult populations. In [16], Zendle & Cairns conducted a large-scale study on gamers aged 18 and over, and measured both their loot box spending and their problem gambling.

Results of this study indicated that the more gamers spent on loot boxes, the more severe their problem gambling was. The effect size associated with this relationship was of magnitude η2 = 0.054—stronger than links between problem gambling and common risk factors in the gambling literature such as drug abuse.

The correlational nature of this research meant that the researchers were unable to determine whether loot box spending caused problem gambling, or whether problem gambling among gamers made them particularly susceptible to loot box mechanisms.

However, they concluded that in either case, regulation of loot boxes for harm prevention may be warranted: in one case, loot boxes are causing grave harm; in the other, they are allowing video game companies to exploit serious disorders among their customers for massive profits. Indeed, loot boxes are estimated to generate up to $30 billion dollars in 2018 alone, with this amount rising to $50 billion by 2022 [1].

This link between loot box spending and problem gambling appears robust in adult populations. Indeed, both the significance and important size of this relationship have been replicated twice already among individuals aged 18+, including in a preregistered study [17,18].

However, while links between problem gambling and loot box spending seem robust among adults, no research has yet either examined whether loot box spending is linked to problem gambling among adolescents. More importantly, no research has yet examined what the magnitude of this relationship might be.

There are good reasons why loot box spending might cause problem gambling among children – and there are also good reasons why the relationship between loot box spending and problem gambling may be stronger in children than it is in the adult population.

Adolescents as a group seem particularly susceptible to problem gambling [19,20]. Indeed, problem gambling is often estimated to be more prevalent among adolescents than it is in adult populations [2123]. There are several explanations for why adolescents might be more likely to develop problem gambling than adults.

For example, neurodevelopmental research suggests that the immaturity of various aspects of brain structure and function are linked to increased impulsivity among adolescents—and this may lead to increased vulnerability to problem gambling [24,25]. Similarly, research into coping strategies among adolescents suggests that this group may lack effective ways to cope with the ‘turbulent times’ [26] that are associated with their time of life.

They may therefore turn to gambling activities as a way to escape from painful states, leading to the development of problem gambling [27]. When taken together, these results suggest that pathways to problem gambling via loot box spending would be particularly pernicious among adolescent populations.

Features of loot boxes

There are a broad variety of different video games on the market. There are a similarly broad variety of different ways that loot boxes are implemented in these games. There are concerns among both academics and regulators that some kinds of loot boxes may be more strongly linked to the development of problem gambling than others [15,28]. Several key differences between kinds of loot boxes are listed below.

Some loot box contents can be cashed out

When players open loot boxes in some games, the items that they find in these boxes are bound to their account and cannot be traded with other players. Examples of games like this are Overwatch and Path of Exile. However, in other games, the items that come out of loot boxes can be traded and re-sold to other players.

This had led to thriving markets for the resale of loot box items. Often, rare items are sold for significant amounts. For example, in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, there is a very small chance when opening some loot boxes that a player will find a rare knife, such as the Bayonet Crimson Web.

Because of their scarcity, such items can be sold to other players for large sums: the knife mentioned above, for instance, can currently be re-sold for just over $2000 [29]. Being able to ‘cash out’ high-value prizes from loot boxes means that players can profit from the things that they win when making a loot box purchase.

There is specific concern in the literature that loot boxes like these are more psychologically similar to other forms of gambling, and therefore more of a risk for the development of gambling-related harm [15].

Some loot box contents give gameplay advantages

Some loot boxes contain items that do not confer any gameplay advantages whatsoever. For example, loot boxes in Team Fortress 2 and Rocket League only contain cosmetic items – things that change the way that players look, but do not alter their effectiveness at playing the game itself. However, this is not the case for all games.

Some games have loot boxes whose contents may potentially give players a competitive edge. For example, players of FIFA‘s Ultimate Team mode can pay real-world money to purchase ‘player packs’ that contain a random selection of footballers. Receiving rare and powerful footballers from these packs improves an individual’s ability to play the game and is key to competing at a high level.

Some loot boxes show ‘near misses’

When players open some loot boxes, they simply show the player the specific items that they have received. However, this is not the case for all loot boxes. Some loot boxes do not just show them the items that they have won, but also display ‘near misses’ of items that they almost seem to have won. For example, in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena DOTA 2, the game displays a row of spinning rewards of varying levels of rarity and prestige. These rewards disappear one after another until only a single reward remains.

Some loot box contents can only be bought using an in-game currency

In games such as Overwatch, loot boxes are bought directly for cash. However, this is not the case in all games. In some games, players pay money for an in-game currency or scrip. This scrip is then used to purchase loot boxes, hiding the exact amount of real-world currency that is spent on each loot box from gamers. Examples of games with a system like this are Fire Emblem: Heroes and Fortnite: Save the World.

Some loot boxes are sometimes given away for free

In some games, loot boxes are only available for purchase, and can never be ‘earned’ by players for their in-game actions. An example of a game like this is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, in which players must pay real-world money to purchase keys to open loot boxes. However, this is not universally the case.

Many games offer players ‘free’ loot boxes in return for playing the game for set periods of time, levelling up or completing in-game content. For example, players of Overwatch receive a loot box every time they level up, and players of League of Legends can earn loot boxes by earning specific in-game ranks.

Some loot box contents can be ‘re-invested’ in more loot boxes

In some games, loot boxes simply contain items or characters. However, in other games, loot boxes can contain in-game currency that can be used to purchase still more loot boxes. For example, in Clash Royale, players can pay an in-game currency called ‘gems’ to purchase or open loot boxes. These loot boxes may, in turn, contain more gems, that can be used as partial payment to purchase or open more loot boxes. Systems like this may be particularly pernicious as they may mimic the smooth playing ‘to extinction’ [30] that has been noted in electronic gambling machines: because players receive small amounts of currency in return for individual transactions, they may continue spending again and again without noticing that they are consistently losing capital, until no funds remain.

Some loot box contents are only available for a limited time

A final potentially important feature of loot boxes is the presence of limited time offers. Many loot boxes contain contents that are available to players for only a limited time. For example, in Overwatch, special edition loot boxes are available throughout the year.

These contain items that are exclusively available in these loot boxes for the limited time that an in-game event runs. Similarly, in the tactical role-playing game Fire Emblem Heroes, players pay to summon random heroes to join their team. However, certain ‘limited heroes’ can only be summoned during specific, time-limited seasonal events.

How the features described above influence the effects of loot boxes remains unclear. In [18], researchers investigated whether several specific features of different loot boxes strengthened links between loot box spending and problem gambling in an adult population.

Their results provided some support for the idea that spending money on some specific kinds of loot boxes may be more strongly linked to problem gambling than others. More precisely, results suggested links between loot box spending and problem gambling may be strengthened if:

(i) loot box contents could be cashed out for real-world money;

(ii) loot boxes showed ‘near misses’ of things that gamers could have won; and

(iii) the amount players spent on loot boxes was hidden behind the purchase of in-game scrip.

However, the robustness of this strengthening effect remains unclear. It is also unclear whether a similar pattern of results would occur in an adolescent population.

Furthermore, several potentially important differences between different kinds of loot boxes were not tested during the research outlined above. For example, neither the presence of free loot boxes, nor the presence of ‘re-investable’ loot box contents nor the presence of ‘limited time’ items were investigated in previous work.

Why adolescents buy loot boxes

No research has yet examined why adolescents buy loot boxes. When it comes to conventional forms of gambling, a substantial body of research has highlighted that individuals engage in gambling for motivations that go far beyond simply winning money. Lloyd et al. [31] highlight a series of common motivations that are consistently found within the gambling literature. These consist of:

  • — raising money,
  • — excitement,
  • — the intrinsic enjoyment of gambling,
  • — escaping from stress,
  • — coping with adverse moods,
  • — a sense of inquiry and competitiveness.

The prevalence of each of these motivations varies between gambling activities. For example, research into gambling on specific casino games has suggested that they are motivated by the desire to experience a ‘rush’ [32], while electronic gambling machine use is associated with a need for escape [33].

Understanding why adolescents buy loot boxes may be key to understanding their effects. As noted by Neighbors et al. [34], identifying the motives that lie behind gambling behaviour is key to determining why problem gambling develops among some individuals.

Indeed, problem gamblers often seem to have distinct reasons for gambling when compared with non-problem gamblers. In [35], researchers found that individuals who gambled in order to cope with external stresses were more likely to experience greater gambling severity, while in [33], researchers found that gambling ‘to escape’ was associated with gambling problems. Similarly, in both [31] and [36], researchers found that individuals who gambled with the purpose of winning money were more likely to have gambling problems.

University of Alberta


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