The hard cost of “soft” gambling

Video game "loot box" mechanics are costing some players thousands of dollars. James Burgess reports.


It’s been almost 18 months since Marcus became addicted to the popular online mobile game Granblue Fantasy.

“Its caused me to pretty much drop out of uni and I sometimes spend 17-18 hours a day playing this videogame and spending every bit of money I earn,” he says.

Marcus has spent over $9000 on Granblue and admits that he has had serious issues with trying to break his addiction.

“It’s not a subject I’d ever, ever bring up with my parents,” he says. “I don’t think I have it in me to tell them how much I’ve spent on this game. I don’t think I’d be able to say the words.”

Yet the 22-year-old confesses that he’s still thoroughly addicted to the title made by Cygames, which posted a profit of $US3.28 billion in 2017.

“The game sort of just caught me in the beginning,” he says. “You’re given so much without having to spend any money, so I thought maybe I might put a bit of money back in, and that’s really how my problem began.”

“There’s sections in Granblue where you can spend real money to get a chance at unlocking new characters or items for your collection,” says Marcus.

However these in-game purchases are not new to games and have existed for over a decade in the form of small one-off payments known as “microtransactions”. They are used for items that help you progress in a game faster than would normally be possible.

They differ from game to game, but the prevailing trend in the last few years has been towards a “loot box” or “gacha” mechanic, a system which is used by Granblue.

Each loot box purchased awards the player with a random assortment of items, with more sought-after items being less likely to appear, forming a type of soft-gambling.

A recent study by data analysis site Qutee, makes it clear that many players are on board with microtransactions in their games, with 69 per cent of a 1000-person study saying that they supported the option.

However, Dr Charles Livingstone, a senior lecturer on public health at Monash University, cautions people against engaging in these kinds of purchasing habits.

“We just don’t understand enough about the cross over between gaming and gambling,” he says, “all studies done so far are preliminary and we have no proven facts”.

Unlike older forms of gambling such as betting on sports or races, loot box games ensure that the player always walks away with at least something for their money, but usually not what they wanted.

This idea of loot box mechanics bucking the trend of traditional gambling is particularly worrying, because people of any age can download and play these games freely.

“The additional exposure via availability provides much more reinforcement for addiction,” says Dr Livingstone, “younger people are more susceptible to the ‘feelgood’ effect of gambling and can become habituated far quicker.”

Unphased by this warning, 23 year-old Ryan has spent $3400 on Hearthstone, a collectable card game, and Overwatch, a first-person shooter game.

“Honestly, I have no problem at all putting money into the games I enjoy playing,” he says. “Gaming is my hobby and I’m ok with spending the money I worked hard for on that hobby.”

The Qutee study also revealed that global spending on in-game microtransactions is set to reach $US32 billion by 2020.

“When I was doing multiple hundred-dollar transactions in the space of a few hours, there was never anything to stop me,” says Marcus.

“I tap my finger and off it goes. This new form of gambling is not bound by anything other than what the developers of these games can get away with.”

“Once I fell into that cycle of one purchase after another, by the time I became aware of the problem, I didn’t care and continued to spend because I was completely addicted,” he says.

Ryan however does not think his purchasing constitutes an addiction but says he’s conscious of the spending whenever he buys items for games. “Sometimes there’s probably better stuff I could be spending my money on, but I understand what I’m doing and it’s my choice,” he says.

Some American states such as Hawaii have moved towards prohibiting loot box purchases to peoples under 21, but Australia has made no indication of pushing for legislation.

Attempts were made to reach out to each state gambling body about their stance on loot box gambling mechanics in videogames, before the writing of this article. However each body declined to give any comment.

“It’s very early days for this issue,” says Dr Livingstone, “but work is going on and it’s important to ensure that politicians and regulators understand that this is a potentially big issue that needs to be properly addressed.”

Ryan says that legislation is not the answer. “People are just going to get addicted to other things. All the government is going to do is make less games available to people in Australia and the last thing we need is more censorship,” he says.

As has been the case with sports betting apps, mobile phones have added to the accessibility and availability of videogame gambling mechanics like those employed by Granblue, which Marcus admits has been a major cause of his addiction.

“I started off playing the game on my phone to relax, then soon enough I was playing because I felt I needed to progress, so I’d sit there and play the game for six hours straight without a break.”

“The portability definitely had an impact on that. I’d finish playing on PC, get off my computer and into bed, then continue playing on my phone until I realised I had to get up for work in four hours,” he says.

The problem faced by many professionals working in the mental health and problem gambling sectors is whether they have the resources and training to deal with cases of combined gaming and gambling addictions.

“I’ve been to a casino about twice in my life, I played roulette and that was it. Gambling has never caught me like this game did,” says Marcus.

“There’s the chance (in traditional gambling) that you walk away with nothing, and you feel pretty unsatisfied, but with games like this you’re always getting something, so you just keep spending because that feeling of satisfaction is always there.”

Dr Livingstone cites lack of research as the cause of such slow progress in providing addiction services of this type. “We just don’t know a lot about the long-term effects yet, it’s probably a harmful form of gambling but the research just isn’t there.”

A search of available services to those suffering from these addictions in Australia revealed a few offering services for gaming addictions, none treatment for combined gambling and gaming addictions.

“I’ve actually been trying to seek help, but haven’t been able to find anything, it just doesn’t seem to be a big deal in Australia,” says Marcus.

It remains to be seen whether services will be established quickly enough to meet demand from people like Marcus in the future.