"Loot boxes", the new slots?

"Loot boxes", the new slots?

Loot Boxes have aroused much interest and controversy in recent years due to their great similarity to games of chance, and their widespread use in an increasingly younger population. Especially in a context where bookmakers and gambling problems are the order of the day. In fact, the consumer ministry intends to reform the gaming law to include the regulation of these “loot boxes” in video games in Spain. In this post we will explain what they consist of, the psychological mechanisms on which they are based, and how to deal with them in an appropriate way.

What are Loot Boxes?

It is a virtual item present in numerous video games, which once acquired, offers a randomly generated reward or prize (Brooks & Clark, 2019). They can be obtained by “merits” (playing, overcoming challenges and requirements), buying in-game currencies and then exchanging them for a loot box, or buying them directly.

They usually take the form of a chest, box, envelope, or something similar. When opened, it is combined with a very striking audiovisual content, reminiscent in many respects of «slot machines» (lights, sounds, spinning wheels …). They can adopt very different aesthetics and forms depending on the game, but the mechanism and the function are usually really similar (Dummond & Sauer, 2018).

1. Example of Loot Box in the game «Brawl Stars»

They can offer rewards that give the player an advantage, or «features» that simply allow you to change the aesthetics of the game. They are generated by algorithms, and while some objects appear very frequently, others are very rare and difficult to obtain. These acquire more value and end up being highly coveted by players, offering a very attractive feeling of exclusivity when they are obtained.

It can be understood as something similar to the trading cards of a lifetime. We do not know what is inside each envelope, and by opening it we could get stickers that we already had and that do not work for us, or new stickers that are rarely available.

What about psychology in all this?

There are several learning laws that rule the behavior of human beings. Simplifying a lot, the consequences of a behavior are largely responsible for the fact that said behavior tends to be repeated in the future, or tends to disappear.

If the behavior in question tends to disappear, the consequences serve a “punishment” function. If the probability that the behavior will be repeated in the future increases, then we speak of a reinforcer.

The point is that to get a reinforcer, sometimes we have to emit a behavior several times. Suppose we want to go to a concert, and we have to buy tickets by phone. If the lines are saturated, they may not catch it the first time. We will have to call several times (behavior), until they answer us in order to buy the tickets (reinforcer). We don’t know how many times we have to call until the phone is picked up.

In psychology, the number of times we have to emit the behavior to access the reinforcer is called the reinforcement program. It can be a program with a fixed ratio (the behavior is emitted a specific number of times) or a variable (the behavior is emitted a variable number of times, which is not known a priori).

The case of the call would be an example of a variable reinforcement program. To understand each other, it is the program that «hooks» the most and the one that is most difficult to get out of: we don’t know how many times we have to call to get the phone picked up, so we keep calling. Sometimes we get an answer after two calls, sometimes after the sixth call. Something like the stickers: we don’t know how many envelopes we have to buy to get the one that interests us, so we keep buying. Translated into video games: I don’t know how many «coffers» I have to buy to get the object I want to touch, so I keep playing or spending money to buy more. The only certainty we have is that if we continue to insist, at one point or another we will get the reward.

This mechanism is present in many video games that will surely sound familiar to you, either because you or your acquaintances play them, such as Fornite, Brawl Stars, Candy Crush, Fifa, Call Of Duty … or almost any recent video game.

2. Loot Boxes in FIFA20 (packs)

They are specially designed for this purpose, and they even use a very similar language to refer to items (common objects, legendary, epic … Objects of gold, silver, bronze …). In this way, I don’t know how many envelopes I have to open for get Leo Messi, so I keep playing / paying to open more envelopes, until I get rewarded with Leo Messi.

What risks are there?

Loot boxes, along with other video game features, can carry some risks. Let’s consider the following:

  • Loot boxes are based on variable boost schedules (as we just saw).
  • They are usually free access games or at very low cost.
  • They are easily accessible for both adults and children.
  • The «loot boxes» tend to have a very low price (we often talk about microtransactions).
  • The effort to get the «loot box» playing is much greater than touching a button to buy many of them.

This combination of factors creates a great «highway» that paves the way for behavioral problems related to video games, and there are already a large number of studies that even somehow link these mechanisms and the appearance of problems with gambling. (Books & Clark, 2019 .; Castillo, 2019 .; Drummond et. Al., 2020 .; Drummond & Sauer, 2018 .; Zendle, Meyer & Over2019 .; Zendle & Cairns, 2018).

The issue acquires greater relevance when it comes to a very young population, which grows and lives with this type of reinforcement programs, stimuli and ways of behaving on a daily basis until they normalize and become familiar with them, being even more difficult to learn to relate from healthy way with this type of games.

Although it is not necessary to be overly alarmed, there can be daunting situations in which large sums of money are spent on these types of microtransactions. There are many examples, such as the case of a young British man who spent his mother’s savings on FIFA, the young man who made more than 80 purchases in 3 days, or another young man who spent 1200 euros on Fortnite, among many others (enough with a Google search about it).
In the press, these are the cases that usually receive the most coverage and attention, although they are the least frequent. The problem is not the product itself, but the use we make of it and the reasons why we use it.

To get an idea, it is estimated that in 2018 the video game industry generated around 30 billion dollars through the purchases of these “loot boxes” (Juniper Research, 2018). It is not surprising that Spain and other countries (such as Belgium and the Netherlands) try to somehow regulate this type of transaction, which is increasingly seen as a “gateway” to gambling.

What I can do?

If this worries you, you have several options. The first and most obvious is to limit your payment options and playing time. Each game has its own transaction system, and it is advisable to know each one of them to limit the payment methods associated with it (whether they are credit cards, debit cards, paypal, etc.).

Being a general post in which we cannot go into each game, it is best to discover and learn about each of the devices or games, since each one has different control mechanisms. Here are some pointers to help you find your way around the main consoles.

If you know someone who plays these games and you are worried about a very good option, combined with the previous one, is to talk to them. Show interest in what they do, and share a moment in which they explain what the game they like so much is about will always be positive. You can explain what these loot boxes consist of and the consequences they can have, in a positive way.

If you consider that it may be a problem (whether in children or adults) and it has consequences on a day-to-day basis, do not hesitate to seek psychological help.

Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Psychologist
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English, French and Spanish
See Resumé

Pandemic and Videogames. Is it an Addiction problem?

Pandemic and Videogames. Is it an Addiction problem?

In this blog post we will look at some of the changes brought about by the pandemic, the circumstances that have led us to spend more time in front of screens, and some of the characteristics of video games that can lead to overuse. We will also look at why it can be wrong to label it as addiction, and some ways to try and change problematic use. We have had to rely much more on new technologies to try to carry out both work and leisure activities, while reducing direct contact with other people. Remote work, video calls and internet-based entertainment have become part of everyday life in almost every household, creating the perfect conditions for the amount of time we spend in front of screens to significantly increase...

Pandemic times

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on all areas of our lives. We have had to adapt unexpectedly to new and changing situations, living with permanent uncertainty. The mental health consequences associated with the pandemic are manifold, ranging from discomfort and other isolated symptoms to the development of complex problems such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, among others. (Ramírez-Ortiz et al. 2020).

Restrictive policies have led to a reorganization of our lives and a loss of the variety of pleasant and enjoyable activities previously available. In a few weeks we went from being able to leave the house freely, to meet with friends and loved ones, to travel, to do engage in different leisure activities... To no longer being able to do most of them. Even under normal circumstances, a loss of gratifying activities like this is likely to generate problems related to mood, stress, and anxiety, among others.

In addition to this great reduction of pleasant stimuli, many unpleasant stimuli have emerged. For months, we have seen very harsh images on television, we have experienced or heard painful stories of people who have been directly affected by the virus, overcrowded field hospitals, people who have not even been able to say goodbye to their loved ones... In one way or another, fear has been present in people' s lives.

One of the areas that has been most affected by health policies is the social sphere, one of the most important aspects of human life. Indeed, even under normal circumstances, people who are socially isolated and have limited mobility are more likely to develop a variety of psychological problems (Huremović, 2019). All these factors have led us to rely much more on new technologies to try to carry out both work and leisure activities, while reducing direct contact with other people. Remote work, video calls and internet-based entertainment have become part of everyday life in almost every household, creating the perfect conditions for the amount of time we spend in front of screens to significantly increase.

Video games

The video game industry has experienced exponential growth in recent years, surpassing even the cinema and music industries. Their use as entertainment has become widespread, and despite having been considered for a long time as something appropriate for children and teenagers, today they have spread to people of all ages and characteristics and are even a source of income for many.

However, they have been the target of much controversy regarding their potential negative consequences on health, especially among children and adolescents. All sorts of negative consequences have been attributed to them, leading to alarming news headlines and stories. They are often automatically linked to addiction, mood disorders or violent behavior, creating public alarm and aversion towards them.

It is important to note that the use of video games is not harmful per se. Many other variables must be considered, such as the use that is made of them, the purpose they serve for each user, and the specific circumstances of each person. In fact, several studies have shown the positive impact that video games can have on people's cognitive, social, and psychological abilities (Vaamonde et al. 2018).

Pandemic and Videogames. Is it an Addiction problem?

Is there such a thing as a video game addiction?

Directly associating video games with addictive disorders is a tricky question that needs a lot of clarification. Firstly, because there are many types of video games, and secondly, because it would be necessary to define what we consider to be an addiction. We shouldn't go to the extreme of scaremongering, but neither should we ignore something that can pose a real problem. In fact, the World Health Organisation has recently defined the "video game use disorder", which reflects that there is some concern, and that there are people who do indeed have a problem with the use of video games. But can we really talk about an addiction to video games?

When do we talk about addiction?

Addictions are complex disorders, and it is not possible to address them in a single post. However, there are some core characteristics shared by all addictions. There are two main aspects to be considered, without which it is probably not possible to talk about an addiction:

  • Lack of control
  • Significant disruption of the person's life.

Addictions are complex disorders, and it is not possible to address them in a single post. However, there are some core characteristics shared by all addictions. There are two main aspects to be considered, without which it is probably not possible to talk about an addiction:

  • Lack of control
  • Significant disruption of the person's life.

 Lack of control is a core component of addiction. When the urge to do something begins to take control over our behavior, and we lose the ability to stop it, we are dealing with compulsive behavior.It starts becoming something automatic, and we begin to dissociate the enormous motivation we feel for doing something, and the actual satisfaction and gratification that finally comes from doing it. This is one of the first signs of a problem: a behavior that becomes automatic, over which we have less and less control, and for which the real satisfaction does not correspond to the overwhelming urge to do it.

In terms of the impact on the person's life, we refer to the fact that the addictive behavior significantly interferes with personal life, in any of its spheres (family, work, leisure, personal life, etc.). The activity in question begins to affect the person's mood, and there is a functional impairment and an obvious impairment of the individual's quality of life.

There are many other criteria for addictions, and many approaches have been proposed to explain them, but there is a broad consensus that, if these two main criteria are met, we can start talking about addiction.

Coming back to video games and children, in general, in most of the cases in which we speak of "children addicted to video games", these characteristics are not present. It seems that the behavior does not have such a marked compulsive nature, and the motivation for playing is actually linked to the satisfaction or reward that is obtained by playing. Although it is debatable whether it is better or worse than other activities, people who spend a lot of time playing video games do not necessarily have a problem with video games, and studies do not show a clear correlation between the time spent playing video games and the problems they cause.

Then, where is the problem with video games?

What has been discussed so far does not mean that there are no issues related to their use, nor does it detract from their importance. Instead of focusing on the time they take up, we should shift the spotlight to other features such as:

  • What is done in-game
  • The purpose it serves for the person playing it

The use of video games can serve many functions and have many causes. It can be a mere source of entertainment that is very rewarding in its own right, or it can be used as a way of coping with other kinds of problems.

Sometimes it may be used for less functional reasons, such as avoiding other situations, to reduce discomfort, or to channel other frustrations and shortcomings in other areas of life. And when gaming becomes a means of escaping the discomfort of situations outside the virtual world, it can become a problem.

For example, a child or adolescent may experience a lot of anxiety in social situations, with a lack of skills to interact in a satisfactory way with other people. However, in the video game he has his own avatar, he is very good at it and seems very competent, so he feels respected and admired by others. If, in addition, it allows him to channel all the frustration and discomfort caused by situations in other areas of his life, and games are an escape route to avoid dealing with them, in this case the game can have negative effects by preventing him from developing behaviors that would be more adaptive in other situations. It is therefore important to find out why playing is important and rewarding for the player, and why they are not receiving similar rewards from other activities.

Again, in this case the use of the game itself is not the problem, but the means or strategy for dealing with the underlying issue. Therefore, we should look at the causes behind the use in each individual and the function they fulfil in each case, and not so much at the game itself. Video games are also an extension of the individual's reality, they are not a world apart, especially for the youngest. Therefore, it is likely that if there are problems in the "real" life of children or adolescents, they will also appear in the "online" world.

Gambling and video games

Another major conflict area that can cause issues is the use of tokens or virtual currencieswithin video games. When we consider non-substance addictions, we often talk about the use of the internet and social networks, video games, and gambling. And in fact, among these cases, gambling is the only non-substance addiction on which there is a strong consensus. Here is where the problem arises, as in recent years the boundaries between the world of video games and the world of gambling have faded. A phenomenon has appeared among video games that shares many characteristics with gambling, which has attracted a great deal of attention: Virtual currencies, and Loot Boxes, which we will explain in more detail in another post.

Virtual currencies are nothing more than an internal currency that can be acquired (with real money) in certain video games, opening the possibility of making transactions within the game. And this fact sets a big difference, opening the gate to gambling-like or identical behaviors, even offering the possibility of betting.

When we consider the characteristics of Loot Boxes, we can quickly see many similarities with gambling - they are "boxes", "chests", "packs" or similar, which can be bought, without knowing what is inside until they are opened.Depending on the game, inside these loot boxes there may be items that allow players to progress faster or that provide them with an advantage (for example, in FIFA envelopes they may receive much better players than others), or purely cosmetic and decorative items such as "skins" or complements for their characters, which are more related to the status and exclusivity they provide to the player. And these types of transactions can cause problems which are closer to the etiology of addiction.

In this case, there is also a social dimension, where exclusive or very rare in-game items are obtained, which are very rewarding for players and give them status within the community. And as mentioned at the beginning of this post, the social sphere is one of the areas that has been most affected by the pandemic, something that may have contributed to the increase in its use.

If we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, we see that health restrictions have led to isolation and social distancing, forcing people to spend more time at home. Many video games offer a space for socializing and are also designed to keep users playing for as long as possible. They include very salient stimuli for players, they are enjoyable activities, and they have become very important in a context where many leisure options have diminished or completely disappeared. These conditions have therefore led to the perfect environment for players to spend more time using them.

However, video games cannot be considered addictive per se, and we must look at each person's circumstances to understand why they are being used in that way, decide whether it is really a problem, and then make the most suitable decisions about it.

To recap:

  • The pandemic has brought major changes to our lives, reducing the «menu» of rewarding activities we previously had, and increasing the unpleasant experiences to which we are exposed.
  • In this environment, new technologies have gained great relevance, both for work and leisure activities, and our time devoted to screens has increased significantly.
  • Given the social aspect of many video games, it is to some extent reasonable that their use increased during the periods of restrictions, given the large decrease in the number of alternatives available.
  • Video games are not harmful or addictive intrinsically, it is necessary to carefully examine the reason why each person plays and the function that their use serves in each case.
  • Although we are not talking about addiction, excessive use of video games can be dysfunctional and cause great discomfort if they take up a lot of time and are used as a means of channeling other deficiencies or avoiding certain situations. Again, each case needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
  • Some video games include gambling-like features, such as loot boxes, which can result in problematic use and lead to addictive behaviors.
  • If you are concerned about your situation or that of your children, the best option is to speak to a professional: each case is different and a psychologist can examine the variables that influence such behavior, the role it plays and suggest a plan to change it.
  • If the problem is with children/adolescents, learn about the risks (such as how loot boxes work), take an interest in your child’s likes and dislikes, understand why the game is important to them, and set agreed boundaries with them. Try to understand the reward they are finding in the video game, and why they may not find it in other activities.
  • Show interest in them, in their world, as it can be a space in which to share time with them, teach them good strategies to interact with technologies and establish a healthy relationship with video games, which can be extended to any potentially harmful behaviour in the future.

References

Huremović, D. (Ed.). (2019). Psychiatry of pandemics: a mental health response to infection outbreak. Springer.

Ramírez-Ortiz, J., Castro-Quintero, D., Lerma-Córdoba, C., Yela-Ceballos, F., & Escobar-Córdoba, F. (2020). Consecuencias de la pandemia Covid 19 en la salud mental asociadas al aislamiento social.

Vaamonde, A. G. N., Toribio, M. J., Molero, B. T., & Suárez, A. (2018). Beneficios cognitivos, psicológicos y personales del uso de los videojuegos y esports: una revisión. Revista de Psicología Aplicada al Deporte y al Ejercicio Físico, 3(2), 16.

Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Psychologist
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English, French and Spanish
See Resumé