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Gambling information, advice and support for young people

Spending in video games: how can it cause harm to young people?

Guest blogger, Leon Y. Xiao a video game law researcher who has dedicated his expertise to shed light on the world of loot boxes, gacha and gambling-like purchases in video games. Leon understands the potential risk and harm games can be to young people, and explains how in-game purchases can be dangerous to your child. 

Nowadays, many video games allow players to make additional purchases with real money to gain access to more content. For example, by spending money, the player may be able to dress up their character in a different costume, allow their character to wield a more powerful weapon, or play as a different character. Besides those direct purchases, what might be more concerning is in-game purchases that involve random chance. These gambling-like features may be visually represented in many different ways and might be referred to by players under various names, such as ‘loot boxes’ and ‘gacha.’ 

Loot boxes are usually presented as a virtual container that the player can open with real-world money to obtain random prizes. For instance, in some games, the player is asked to purchase a key to open the loot box. Gacha games often appear in mobile games and are more difficult to identify as it allows the player to spend money for a chance to obtain a rare character or item. Other gambling-like features might be instead portrayed as a prize wheel or even a slot machine.

The similarity that these in-game purchases share is that the player does not know what exactly they will receive in return for spending money. This is because the result of opening the loot box or engaging with the gacha feature is randomly determined. The prizes or rewards that can be obtained vary greatly in value and desirability. Most prizes that can be won are likely to be disappointing. However, a few rare rewards are highly desirable. Players may decide to purchase many loot boxes to try to obtain those rare rewards. You may not know that the money given to your child to spend on video games has been spent on gambling-like features within a game. According to the Gambling Commission, 24% of 11–16 year olds in the UK bought loot boxes with real money.

In-game purchases may sound like gambling as they involve both real-world money and an element of random chance. Most of these features are not legally recognised as gambling; however, with the latest news, the UK games industry has unveiled plans to try and restrict access to loot boxes for children unless their parent or carer actively consents. One in ten (10%) 14 to 15 year olds state that they were 9 years old or younger when they first spent money in a game, although 40% claim to have never spent money within a game (data from YouGov 2022).  

If you are worried that your child is experiencing these harms or would like to find out more information on how to help your child, reach out to our Young People’s Service.