NHS Mental Health Director calls for clampdown on gaming loot boxes

Around 55,000 children have a gambling problem in the UK — it’s time the games industry started acting

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Photo: Pixabay

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) Mental Health Director, Claire Murdoch, has spoken out against the use of loot boxes in video games aimed at children.

What is a loot box?

A loot box is a virtual item which can be cashed in to get a randomly generated ‘prize’, such as customisation options e.g. skins (a graphic or audio file used to change the appearance of the user interface to a program or for a game character), or game-changing equipment such as weapons or armour.

These loot boxes are often monetized by games companies so that players either have to spend money to buy loot boxes outright or buy keys to unlock boxes they have received during play. But regardless of whether or not games monetize these loot boxes, they are addictive, working in the same ways as the slot machines you see in Vegas and other casinos around the world. This creates problems, especially among young children who may not fully understand the negative effects that gambling addictions can have.

Why is everyone talking about loot boxes?

The loot box mechanism has increased in popularity over recent years, with the rise of free-to-play mobile gaming. Developers and studios have come under fire for creating pay-to-win mechanisms where the gameplay systems favour players that spend real money on loot boxes to get ahead of other players.

But it was the use of loot boxes in grey-market gambling that made the games industry begin to regulate the loot box mechanism under national gambling laws.

In 2013, Valve added random skin rewards as part of an update to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, thinking that players would trade these with other players and bolster both the player community and its Steam marketplace. But then a number of websites were created to bypass the monetary restrictions Valve set on the Steam marketplace to aid in high-value trading, which meant users could receive cash for skins they had collected in the game. Then, to make matters worse, these sites added the ability to use skins as a virtual currency to bet on the outcome of professional e-sports matches or on other games of chance.

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Flickr: steamXO

There have also been countless stories in the press about parents whose children have racked up huge credit card bills without realising they were spending real money in the game, or did realise but couldn’t stop gambling with their parents’ hard-earned cash.

The UK’s Gambling Commission states that around 55,000 children in Britain have a gambling problem, a habit compounded by the addictive mechanisms of loot-boxes in video games which, as mentioned, aren’t dissimilar to how slot machines or slot machine apps work.

What can be done to counter the negative effects of loot boxes?

In response to growing concerns about gaming addiction in the UK, the NHS is opening a new treatment centre, alongside up to 14 new NHS gambling clinics nationwide, to address significant mental ill-health linked to addiction.

NHS Mental Health Director, Claire Murdoch, said:

“Frankly no company should be setting kids up for addiction by teaching them to gamble on the content of these loot boxes. No firm should sell to children loot box games with this element of chance, so yes those sales should end.

“Young people’s health is at stake, and although the NHS is stepping up with these new, innovative services available to families through our Long Term Plan, we cannot do this alone, so other parts of society must do what they can to limit risks and safeguard children’s wellbeing.”

In response, Ukie, the not-for-profit trade body for the UK’s games and interactive entertainment industry, said:

“The games industry takes its responsibility to players very seriously and acknowledges that some people are concerned.

“That is why on the 10th January we launched our Get Smart About PLAY campaign, which is designed to help parents and carers manage play online and in the home.

“It shows that it is already possible to manage, limit or turn off spend in games with the help of family controls, providing practical guidance on how to do so at askaboutgames.com.”

Ukie added:

“The games industry has already committed to measures to inform players about purchasing choices, including in regards to loot boxes.

“New platform policies will require optional paid loot boxes in games to disclose information on the relative rarity or probability of obtaining randomised virtual items by the end of 2020, with many companies doing this voluntarily already.

“The government has committed to conducting a review of the Gambling Act, which loot boxes will form a part of. We look forward to working constructively with them on it.”

The major console makers — Sony Interactive Entertainment, Microsoft and Nintendo — are already committed to these new platform policies that require paid loot boxes in games developed for their platforms to disclose information on the relative rarity or probability of obtaining randomized virtual items.

Whose responsibility is loot box regulation?

But many parents do not feel that they should be forced to police their child’s online gaming habits, with lobbyists calling for a regulatory body to oversee the games industry and prevent loot boxes from being inserted into games aimed at children to begin with.

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, psychiatrist and founder of Central and North West London’s National Problem Gambling Clinic said:

“As the Director of the National Centre for Gaming Disorders, the first NHS clinic to treat gaming addiction, I am fully in favour of taking a public health approach and bringing in a regulatory body to oversee the gaming industry products currently causing great concerns to parents and professionals.

“Loot boxes are only one of several features that will need to be investigated and indeed researched.

“We need an evidence-based approach to ensure our young people and gamers, in general, do not continue to be subjected to new and increasingly harmful products without our intervention.”

What do you think about loot boxes? Are they an inevitability with the rise of free-to-play gaming or should they be scrapped from games for good?

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The Indiependent Founder, NCTJ qualified journalist, Oxford University grad. Interested in tech, political communication & data ethics. Tweets: @BettyKirkers

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