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.

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