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Rare Loot Box Rewards Trigger Larger Arousal and Reward Responses, and Greater Urge to Open More Loot Boxes

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Loot boxes are a purchasable video-game feature consisting of randomly determined, in-game virtual items. Due to their chance-based nature, there is much debate as to whether they constitute a form of gambling. We sought to address this issue by examining whether players treat virtual loot box rewards in a way that parallels established reward reactivity for monetary rewards in slots play. Across two sets of experiments, we show that loot boxes containing rarer items are more valuable, arousing, rewarding and urge-inducing to players, similar to the way slots gamblers treat rare large wins in slots play. Importantly, we show in Experiment 2 that the duration of Post Reinforcement Pauses, an index of reward reactivity, are longer for boxes with rarer items. Boxes containing rarer rewards also trigger larger Skin Conductance Responses and larger force responses—indices of positive arousal. Findings of Experiment 2 also revealed that there was an increase in anticipatory arousal prior to the reveal of loot box rewards. Collectively, our results elucidate the structural similarities between loot boxes and specific gambling games. The fact that players find rarer game items hedonically rewarding and motivating has implications for potential risky or excessive loot box use for some players.
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Journal of Gambling Studies (2021) 37:141–163
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10899-019-09913-5
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ORIGINAL PAPER
Rare Loot Box Rewards Trigger Larger Arousal andReward
Responses, andGreater Urge toOpen More Loot Boxes
ChanelJ.Larche1 · KatrinaChini1· ChristopherLee1· MikeJ.Dixon1·
MyraFernandes1
Published online: 23 November 2019
© The Author(s) 2019
Abstract
Loot boxes are a purchasable video-game feature consisting of randomly determined, in-
game virtual items. Due to their chance-based nature, there is much debate as to whether
they constitute a form of gambling. We sought to address this issue by examining whether
players treat virtual loot box rewards in a way that parallels established reward reactivity
for monetary rewards in slots play. Across two sets of experiments, we show that loot boxes
containing rarer items are more valuable, arousing, rewarding and urge-inducing to players,
similar to the way slots gamblers treat rare large wins in slots play. Importantly, we show in
Experiment 2 that the duration of Post Reinforcement Pauses, an index of reward reactiv-
ity, are longer for boxes with rarer items. Boxes containing rarer rewards also trigger larger
Skin Conductance Responses and larger force responses—indices of positive arousal. Find-
ings of Experiment 2 also revealed that there was an increase in anticipatory arousal prior
to the reveal of loot box rewards. Collectively, our results elucidate the structural similari-
ties between loot boxes and specific gambling games. The fact that players find rarer game
items hedonically rewarding and motivating has implications for potential risky or exces-
sive loot box use for some players.
Keywords Gambling· Gaming· Reward reactivity· Arousal· Motivation
Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (https ://doi.org/10.1007/s1089
9-019-09913 -5) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
* Chanel J. Larche
cjlarche@uwaterloo.ca
Katrina Chini
kchini@uwaterloo.ca
Christopher Lee
christopher.lee@uwaterloo.ca
Mike J. Dixon
mjdixon@uwaterloo.ca
Myra Fernandes
mafernan@uwaterloo.ca
1 Department ofPsychology, University ofWaterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Psychology,
Anthropology, and Sociology Building, Waterloo, ONN2L3G1, Canada
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Introduction
The incorporation of chance-based microtransactions (i.e., in-game purchases) in video-
games has sparked concern over the potential connection between video-games and gam-
bling. Much of this concern is centred around the incorporation of loot boxes (a form of
chance-based microtransaction) into games (King and Delfabbro 2018). Loot boxes are
purchasable virtual boxes comprised of randomly determined in-game virtual items that
vary in value based on their rarity in the game. Recent research has established a link
between problem gambling severity and expenditure related to loot boxes specifically,
arguing that loot box use within games may act as a ‘gateway to gambling’ (Zendle and
Cairns 2018, 2019). Although researchers contend that there are parallels between loot box
purchases and gambling, little is known about how players hedonically and motivation-
ally respond to these types of rewards at the psychological, physiological and behavioural
level. Specifically, in the gambling literature, research has demonstrated that physiological
arousal triggered during gameplay is the primary reinforcer of gambling behaviour, and
is tightly linked to one’s urge to gamble (Brown 1986; Baudinet and Blaszczynski 2013).
However, unlike traditional gambling situations, such rewards in loot boxes are non-mon-
etary in nature. To elucidate the impact of loot box use on reward processing and motiva-
tion in players, the present research examines how avid players of a game containing loot
boxes psychologically value these rewards, and further, how such rewards influence play-
ers’ arousal and hence craving (i.e., urge) to open more loot boxes.
Structural Similarities Between Loot Boxes andSlot Machines
Researchers have often compared loot boxes with slot machines, given that they both oper-
ate on a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule, which is known to elicit a pattern of rein-
forced/repeated behaviours (Haw 2008). Indeed, the specific contents of any given loot box
are unknown to the player, in that the items are randomly determined. A key difference
between loot boxes and slots is that the items within loot boxes are valuable solely within
the confines of the game. The appeal of loot boxes lies in the chance to obtain rare items
that a player may wish to procure—the rarer the item the more it appears to be valued by
players. The chance-determined content of loot boxes is similar to the unpredictable nature
of outcomes in slot machines. In slots losses are the most common, small wins are less
common, and large wins are exceedingly rare. In general, just as different slots outcomes
are associated with varying monetary values that correlate with their rarity, loot boxes too
contain items whose worth to the player may depend on their rarity. One of the goals of the
current research will be to confirm that players do indeed find rarer items as being subjec-
tively more valuable.
Rewards, Arousal andUrge intheContext ofGambling
Crucially, the allure of both slots games and loot box events within video-games likely
involves the different arousal signatures for these various types of outcomes. Importantly,
physiological arousal (e.g., triggered by gambling wins) is associated with both the onset
and maintenance of gambling behaviours and has been shown to promote the urge to
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gamble (Baudinet and Blaszczynski 2013). Skin conductance responses (SCRs), which
measure sweat gland activity, are a well-established indicator of physiological arousal
(Sharpe et al. 1995; Dixon et al. 2011; Dixon et al. 2013). Wins in slots play provoke
increases in physiological arousal that are titrated to the size of the win. That is, as wins get
progressively larger so to do skin conductance response magnitudes (Dixon etal. 2013).
If loot boxes mimic slots outcomes, then loot boxes of varying rarity would be expected
to replicate this pattern, with loot boxes containing more common (lower valued) items
inducing only small amounts of arousal, and loot boxes containing rarer (higher valued)
items inducing commensurately higher arousal, and hence larger SCRs.
In addition to SCRs, physiological arousal during slots play can be measured using
the force one exerts on the spin button. Dixon et al. (2015) demonstrated that slots play-
ers would exert greater force on the spin button to initiate the next spin following large
wins. Additionally, the force applied following wins was titrated to the win-size. Dixon
etal. (2015, 2018a, b) interpreted this relation between force and win size as attributable
to arousal and showed that this force measure was even more sensitive to win size than
SCRs. Hence, if players had to press a mouse to continue to see more loot-box openings,
we would expect that the force exerted on the mouse would be titrated to the rarity of the
items in the loot box that was just viewed.
Post-reinforcement pauses (PRPs) are another means of gauging the reward value of
slots outcomes (Dixon etal. 2013). PRPs are a measure of the length of time between the
outcome delivery and the initiation of the next spin (Dixon etal. 2013). In slots, when play-
ers spin and lose, they tend to initiate the next spin right away. When they spin and win,
they tend to pause before spinning again. As mentioned, the length of this post-reinforce-
ment pause tends to be titrated to the size of the win—the bigger the win, the longer the
pause. Players appear to pause to internally celebrate the rewarding events, which exerts a
momentary inhibition of further reward-seeking behaviour (Delfabbro and Winefield 1999;
Dixon etal. 2013). Therefore, we expect that loot box users would demonstrate similar
PRPs in response to more valuable loot boxes.
In addition to arousal effects triggered after the outcomes are revealed, loot boxes may
also trigger arousal prior to the outcome. Increased arousal is highly associated with antici-
pation of risk, but importantly also with reward (Critchley etal. 2001). In games like Over-
watch, when a loot box is obtained, there is a brief anticipatory period in the moments
leading up to the reveal of the items. Animations show the loot box shaking for a period
of approximately 2s prior to showing the items exploding out of the box. Hence, arousal
might be expected to increase even before the reveal of the specific loot items. Thus, loot
boxes may be particularly alluring outcomes because they may trigger a buildup of arousal
prior to the outcome, followed by a further increase in arousal if the items revealed are
ones coveted by the player.
Hence, both the anticipation of, and the experience of reward linked to rare events
(large wins, rare loot-box items) likely play a critical role in the subjective and physiologi-
cal experiences of both slot machine players and loot box users. Additionally, a number
of studies have shown that different types of outcomes promote the urge to keep playing
in a gambling context—a phenomenon likely mediated by this combined effect of arousal
triggered before and after reward delivery. For example, in both scratch cards and slot
machines, if urge to keep playing is assessed following an outcome, urge to keep playing
tends to be higher following a win and lower following a loss (Stange etal. 2016, 2017a, b;
Clark etal. 2012). Hence, rarer, more valuable, loots are expected to induce greater urge to
open additional loot boxes versus more common and less valuable loots. As urge plays an
integral role in problem gambling behaviours, demonstrating the urge-inducing properties
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of loot boxes would further fortify the notion of an existing relationship between loot
boxes, their problematic use and gambling.
Current Study
Overall, the current research seeks to determine whether loot box users for a particular
game treat loot boxes of varying values in ways that are similar to the way slot machine
gamblers treat varying sizes of wins in slots play. We chose the game Overwatch as our
central focus as it is considered to be one of the most popular games that contains loot
boxes among young adults (Guskin 2018). Across two studies, we expect participants to
rate loot boxes containing rarer items as being more subjectively valuable to them. We also
expect loot boxes with rarer items to be more arousing, positively valenced, rewarding,
and more inducing of urge to open another box. Understanding players’ reward reactivity
in response to loot boxes of varying value will aid in determining whether loot boxes elicit
arousing and urge-inducing responses, which are heavily implicated in the development of
problematic behaviours in gamblers. If we can show that loot box rewards are treated in
much the same way that monetary outcomes are treated in slots play, it would underscore
that both reward structures may lead to similar reward processing and motivational effects.
In general, slots are known to lead to problematic gambling for some players, and hence are
highly regulated. Therefore, showing that loot boxes are responded to similarly to slots out-
comes would speak to the question of whether the loot boxes constitute a form of gambling
and are in need of regulation.
Overview ofExperiment 1
To our knowledge, this is the first experiment of its kind to directly observe game player
responses to loot box rewards. We first aimed to confirm whether players who are familiar
with loot boxes in the game Overwatch systematically categorize the value of the items in
loot boxes based on the rarity of the items within the box. Although intuitively it would
seem that this should be the case it is important to demonstrate this relation since other fac-
tors could potentially be at play—some loot boxes may be valued if they contain common
items that nonetheless have a personal relevance to a particular player based on the charac-
ter they typically play. To demonstrate that there was indeed a systematic relation between
rarity and perceived value, we assessed the correlation between the net worth of the in-
game items contained in a box as calculated using in-game currency with participants’ sub-
jective ratings of that loot box’s value. Since the in-game currency measure is determined
by the rarity of the items, if players do systematically value loot boxes containing rarer
items more than loot boxes with less rare items, then we expect the subjective ratings of
loot box value to track with its assigned objective value. The second aim of Experiment
1 was to determine whether loot boxes of greater objective and subjective value would
yield higher ratings for arousal, positive valence, and urge to open another box. Overall we
expected players to respond to loot boxes of greater objective and subjective value to be
more arousing, more positively valenced, and importantly, more inducing of urge to open
another loot box.
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Methods
Participants
We recruited a total of 57 participants from two pools of students at the University of
Waterloo. Twenty-eight participants were recruited from a pool of students voluntarily
participating in psychology studies for credit. The remaining 29 student participants were
recruited from poster advertisements across the University of Waterloo campus. In order
to participate, students were required to have played the game Overwatch at least once in
the past 4weeks, as well as opened a loot box within Overwatch at least once in the past
4weeks. Participants were compensated $5 for their time.
We excluded 10 participants due to incomplete data or failed attention checks. This left
us with a final sample of 47 participants.
Apparatus
Loot Box Stimuli
Participants viewed 49 videos of actual Overwatch loot box openings. Each video was a
total of 15s in length. In the first 2s of each video, the loot box would appear to shake, at
about 2s the loot box would release four coloured coins representing each item into the air.
The full reveal of the four loot box items occurred 5s into the video (see Fig.1). The video
trial presentations appeared in randomized order for all participants.
To calculate the objective value of each loot box, we used the objective cumulative
worth of all the items based on their individual credit worth in the game. Individual items
belong to one of four possible classes based on its rarity in the game, signified by the
Fig. 1 Depiction of loot box video event. Loot box opening begins at 0s, the coin reveal begins at 2s and
the full item reveal at 5s. Colours associated with each item are visible to players during both the coin
reveal and item reveal periods
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colour of the coin shown during the Coin Reveal. The coins then become the platform
beneath each item once they are revealed during the Item Reveal phase. The four classes
in order of increasing rarity are as follows: common, rare, epic and legendary. However,
by the game’s standards, each loot box guarantees at least one ‘rare’ tier item, allowing for
the classification of boxes into three categories (Carpenter 2017). These ‘rare’, ‘epic’ and
‘legendary’ demarcations are used by the game designers and are familiar to avid players.
Thus, we used the same classification system to categorize our stimulus set. Each class
corresponds to a particular value of in-game credits. Furthermore, each class is associated
with a specific colour highlighting the in-game value of the received items to players (see
Table1). For instance, the “rare” tier consisted of boxes containing at least one “blue” item
and no epic (i.e., magenta) or legendary (i.e., gold) items, conferring a value range of 150
to 225 credits (a full list of the objective loot box values in our stimulus set can be found
in supplementary materials). The finalized stimulus set consisted of 29 rare boxes, 15 epic
boxes and 5 legendary boxes. These frequencies correspond with the actual probabilities of
loot boxes of these values in the game, given that the stimuli were derived from a player’s
single loot box opening session.
Materials
Subjective Ratings ofArousal andValence
Subjective ratings of arousal and valence were measured using Self-Assessment Manikins
(SAM; Bradley and Lang 1994). Ratings of arousal and valence were measured for each
loot box event. Participants indicated their current emotional state from a range of five
manikins, which depicted an image representing varying levels of arousal and positive/
negative valence (see Fig.2).
Subjective Ratings ofUrge toOpen Another Loot Box
Urge to open another loot box was measured using a 100-point line scale, with 0 represent-
ing no urge and 100 representing high urge. Participants rated their urge after each loot
box event via a mouse click along the line in response to an item that read ‘Using the scale
below (0–100), please rate your level of urge to open another loot box’.
Loot Box Subjective Value
In order to gauge subjective value, participants were asked to indicate the number of in-
game credits they would be willing to spend on the loot box using a number line. Loot box
Table 1 Loot box tiers and value ranges
Tier Criteria n Value range (net
worth of all items
in box)
Rare Box contains at least one “Blue” item. 29 150–225 credits
Epic Box contains at least one “Magenta” item. 15 325–500 credits
Legendary Box contains at least one “Gold” item. 5 1075–1325 credits
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credits ranged from 0 credits (no value) to 4000 credits (high value). This 4000 point scale
was used because this was the maximum amount obtainable, given that each box contained
4 items, with each item being worth up to 1000 credits. Participants were also asked to
indicate their subjective worth on a scale from 1 (no worth) to 16 (high worth). Due to
the issues of multicollinearity of this measure with subjective value, we have omitted the
measure of subjective worth from further analysis.
Procedure
This experiment was conducted using the online survey platform Qualtrics. Participants
recruited from the university’s online research pool were redirected to the experiment, and
immediately granted half a credit toward a course of their choosing upon completion. Par-
ticipants recruited from the poster ads were asked to email researchers for a link to the
survey.
Upon completing the online consent form, participants immediately began the exper-
iment phase. Participants were presented with the randomized set of 49 loot box open-
ing videos, each of them followed by the subjective survey battery. They were required
to watch each video from start to finish before proceeding to the subjective surveys. Each
subjective survey set contained a photographic depiction of the loot box outcome from the
most recently opened loot box, as well as questions regarding their level of arousal, their
subjective valence, and urge to open another box. Participants also indicated how much
they were willing to spend for the items in each box. Participants completed the same sur-
vey set for all 49 videos, and were then debriefed.
Fig. 2 a Self-assessment manikin used to indicate subjective feelings of arousal. b Self-assessment manikin
used to indicate subjective feelings of affect
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Experiment 1 Results andDiscussion
Data Reduction andAnalysis Strategy
Out of the 57 participants recruited, only 47 had valid data for all trials and had passed the
attention check. Outliers were removed using the Van Selst and Jolicoeur (1994) trimming
procedure.
Subjective responses were analyzed by comparing the different tiers of the loot boxes
to which participants were exposed. For all measures, loot outcomes that fell into their
respective tiers were trimmed for outliers and then averaged. Using ‘arousal’ as an exam-
ple, an outlier free average was calculated for the 29 ‘rare’ loot boxes, another outlier free
average was calculated for the ‘epic’ loot boxes and a third outlier free average was cal-
culated for the ‘legendary’ loot boxes. These averages from each participant were used as
input data for a repeated measures analyses of variance (ANOVA) with tier (rare, epic,
legendary) as the repeated factor. Any significant main effects were analyzed using Fisher’s
Least Significant Difference (LSD) post hoc comparisons. Greenhouse–Geisser corrections
were used when violations of sphericity occurred.
Objective andSubjective Loot Box Values—Validity Check
The 49 loot boxes ranged in objective value from 150 game credits to 1325 game cred-
its. Some loot boxes had the same objective value. For instance, there are 19 loot boxes
objectively valued at 150 credits, 2 loot boxes worth 175 credits and 7 loot boxes worth
200 credits. In total there were 14 unique values of loot boxes (150, 175, 200, 225, 325,
350, 375, 400, 425, 450, 500, 1075, 1125, and 1325). To determine whether these objec-
tive loot box values correlated with participants’ subjective ratings of value, we tabulated
the subjective ratings of value for the 14 aforementioned loot box values (e.g., an average
subjective value was calculated for the 19 loot boxes objectively valued at 150 credits and
used for this data point). Participants subjective ratings were then averaged culminating in
14 average ratings for each objective loot box value.
There was a strong, positive association between the objective and subjective values of
the loot boxes measured in credits, r(13) = .962, p .001. This correlation demonstrates
that these frequent players would pay more in game currency for loots that are objectively
worth more according to the net worth of the loot boxes. Moreover, Pearson’s r correlations
also showed that the subjective ratings are strongly and positively correlated with arousal
(r(13) = .959, p .001) positive valence (r(13) = .938, p .001), and urge (r(13) = .905,
p .001) to continue opening loot boxes. Objective ratings were also positively correlated
with arousal, valence and urge. This pattern of results shows that more valuable loot boxes
are deemed more arousing, positively valenced and inducing of the urge to open loot boxes.
There was a consistent pattern of ratings for reward value when observing average rat-
ings of loots across the reward tiers. Specifically, there was a main effect of credit value
across the three different reward tiers, F(1.17, 54.82) = 59.53, p ≤ .001, η p 2 = .564. As pre-
dicted, legendary loots (M = 987.15, SD = 807.85) were deemed the most valuable com-
pared to loots that fell into the epic (M = 347.06, SD = 509.58; p .001) and rare categories
(M = 188.56, SD = 360.89; p .001). Moreover, rare tier loots were the least valued and
rated lower in comparison to epic loots (p .001). Here we provide evidence that players
are indeed determining the value of the loots based on the rarity of the items depicted by
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the game, as opposed to other idiosyncratic factors such as how well an item would suit a
particular a given player’s personal avatar (see Fig.3).
Subjective Ratings ofArousal, Valence andUrge
Figure3 also displays the average ratings for arousal, valence, and urge across the three
reward tiers of loot boxes.
In terms of arousal, a repeated measures ANOVA with a Greenhouse–Geisser correc-
tion revealed that there was a significant main effect of arousal across the three reward
tiers, F(1.48, 68.19) = 125.28, p ≤ .001, η p 2 = .731. As expected, Fisher’s LSD com-
parisons demonstrated that loot boxes containing at least one legendary item (M = 3.39,
SD = 1.04) showed the greatest arousal scores compared to epic loot boxes (M = 2.21,
SD = .753; p .001) and rare loot boxes (M = 1.46, SD = .487; p ≤ .001). Additionally, epic
loot boxes were deemed more arousing to players compared to rare loot boxes (p ≤ .001).
For valence, a repeated measures ANOVA with a Greenhouse–Geisser correction
revealed a significant main effect of valence across the different reward tiers, F(1.49,
68.85) = 166.87, p ≤ .001, η p 2 = .784. Fisher’s LSD comparisons indicated that legendary
loot boxes (M = 4.21, SD = .585) were rated the most positively valenced compared to epic
(M = 3.09, SD = .649; p .001) and rare loot boxes (M = 2.26, SD = .802; p ≤ .001). Epic
loot boxes, by contrast were more positively valenced than rare loot boxes (p ≤ .001).
Finally, a repeated measures ANOVA with a Greenhouse–Geisser correction revealed
a significant main effect of urge across the reward tiers, F(1.22, 56.50) = 23.89, p ≤ .001,
ƞp
2 = .349. As expected, Fisher’s LSD indicated that urge ratings were highest after
Fig. 3 Experiment 1 subjective responses for loot boxes across different reward tiers (see Table1 for tier
value specifications). a Average subjective value in credits, b average subjective arousal ratings, c average
ratings of valence, d average ratings of urge. Error bars ± 1 SE. *p ≤ .05; **p ≤ .001
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experiencing a legendary loot box (M = 44.24, SD = 27.06) compared to an epic (M = 32.77,
SD = 25.34; p .001) and rare loot box (M = 25.39, SD = 27.17; p .001). Epic loot boxes
were more urge inducing compared to a rare item (p .001). The subjective ratings of
value, arousal, valence and urge are indeed titrated to the size of the reward (or based on
the tier to which they belong, based on their objective value).
In summary, in Experiment 1 we distributed an online survey containing 49 loot box
videos and examined Overwatch players’ subjective ratings of value, arousal, valence and
urge to open another box for each video. Players subjectively valued most those loot boxes
with the highest objective worth (e.g., those that contained at least one of the most uncom-
mon ‘legendary’ items) compared to loots that were objectively worth less (e.g., those con-
taining more common items falling into the ‘rare’ and ‘epic’ tiers) (Fig.3). Moreover, play-
ers also gave larger ratings of arousal, valence and urge as the reward value of the loot box
increased (see Fig.3).
Overview ofExperiment 2
We showed in Experiment 1 that players systematically categorized valuable and non-val-
uable loots based on increasing rarity, and hence increasing objective value, of the items
in a loot box. We also showed that loots of increasing rarity were associated with greater
arousal, were more positively valenced and more urge inducing. In Experiment 2, we
sought to replicate this pattern of subjective responses of value, arousal, valence and urge.
Since loots containing common items (those in the ‘rare’ tier) were the most negatively
valenced, a measure of disappointment was introduced as a more nuanced assessment of
negative valence. We therefore expect that more common items acquired in loot boxes
should produce higher ratings of disappointment (van Dijk 1999).
Additionally, we sought to determine whether these subjective ratings converge with
prominent measures of hedonic reward and arousal. Specifically, we examined whether
the most uncommon items were hedonically the most rewarding as indexed by post-rein-
forcement pauses (PRPs). We predicted that loots containing exceedingly uncommon
items (e.g., items in the legendary reward tier) would be more rewarding, hence, producing
longer PRPs. We also examined whether video game players found these more valuable
loots to be more arousing events as indexed by skin conductance responses (SCRs) and
force responses. If so, the opening of valuable boxes should trigger larger SCRs, and such
reward related arousal should manifest in harder mouse button presses as they press to con-
tinue the experiment and view more boxes. Specifically then both SCRs and force on the
mouse button should rise with the rarity of the loot box just opened. Arousal should not
only follow the opening of loot boxes, but should also heighten in the moments just before
a loot box is opened. During this anticipation phase, when players might or might not see
uncommon (and hence) valuable items, we would expect a rise in anticipatory arousal
quantified by increases in skin conductance levels (SCLs).
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Methods
Participants
A total of 46 avid Overwatch players from two participant pools were recruited to partici-
pate in the experiment. Of those 46, 37 participants were recruited through the University of
Waterloo’s SONA system for partial course credit. The remaining 9 participants were recruited
from posters advertising the experiment placed around the University of Waterloo campus and
received $10 as financial remuneration for their time. Eligibility requirements were identical
to Experiment 1.
Apparatus
Loot Box Stimuli
We employed the same battery (n = 49) of video stimuli used in Experiment 1, plus three addi-
tional “practice” loot box videos used for familiarizing participants to the experimental proto-
col (the latter were not analyzed).
Post‑Reinforcement Pauses
Participants were not required to watch each video in its entirety. Rather, they could click on
a modified mouse to advance to the next stage of the experiment (the answering of subjec-
tive questions about the video they had just seen). Post-Reinforcement Pauses (PRPs) were
based on how long players waited before clicking this modified mouse. Concretely, PRPs were
measured by time in seconds between the reveal of the coloured coins and when they clicked
on the modified mouse.
Skin Conductance Responses
Skin Conductance Responses (SCRs) were recorded via the use of two electrode plates
(MLT118F GSR Finger Electrodes) attached to the index and middle finger of the participant’s
non-dominant hand. The electrodes were fed into a Powerlab (model 4/30), which amplified
the signal and converted the analog signal to a digital recording of participants’ physiological
responses.
Force
Force was quantified as the amount of pressure (mv) imparted on the modified mouse when
the participant made the press response to initiate the subjective surveys following the loot box
video.
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Materials
Subjective Value, Arousal, Valence andUrge toOpen Another Box
Items measuring subjective value, arousal, valence and urge were identical to what was
used in Experiment 1.
Subjective Ratings ofDisappointment
Disappointment was measured using a 100-point line scale, with 0 representing no dis-
appointment and 100 representing high disappointment. Participants rated their disap-
pointment after each loot box event via a mouse click along the line.
Design
The experiment utilized a within-subjects design where following viewing 3 practice
loot box videos and answering subjective questions to these videos participants were
presented with 49 experimental loot box trials. Each participant viewed all 49 boxes,
which consisted of outcomes ranging in value from 150 credits to 1325 credits.
Procedure
After informed consent was provided, participants completed a demographic question-
naire using Qualtrics software on a PC computer for reasons peripheral to the current
research. Upon completion, participants were instructed to face a separate Macintosh
computer where the loot box trials took place. The researcher attached two electrodes to
the middle and index fingertips of the participant’s non-dominant hand. The researcher
instructed the participant to keep the hand attached to the electrodes as still as possible
throughout this phase of the experiment.
Participants were then instructed to view each loot box video and to click the modi-
fied mouse when they were ready to move on to the subjective measures pertaining to
the video they had just seen. Upon completion of these subjective questions, a new loot
box video appeared. Participants were told that the first three loot boxes would be prac-
tice and as such could ask questions for clarification before moving onto the experi-
mental trials. Once participants had viewed and completed the questionnaires for all 49
experimental trials, the experiment concluded.
Experiment 2 Results andDiscussion
Out of the 46 participants recruited, only 40 had valid data for all physiological and sub-
jective measures. One participant was excluded for clicking the mouse (i.e., advancing
to the subjective questions) prior to the reveal of the coins for 8 or more videos (15% of
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trials). Five participants were excluded for pressing the modified mouse button so softly
that it failed to be recorded.
Data Reduction andAnalysis Strategy
Both physiological and subjective measures were subjected to outlier analyses. Outliers
were determined using the Van Selst and Jolicoeur (1994) trimming procedure which
removes the biases in outlier attribution due to different numbers of observations across
conditions. This technique was necessary as there were a greater number of loot boxes
with more common items than loot boxes with rare items in this experiment. Moreover, for
non-excluded participants, if there were any trials where participants pressed the modified
mouse to initiate the subjective surveys prior to the reveal of the coins, these trials were
excluded from all further analyses since participants would not have viewed any informa-
tion relevant to the value and contents of the loot box.
Reactions to the items within the loot box were measured using SCR amplitudes (Daw-
son et al. 2007). Recall that the coin reveal occurred at the 2 s mark of the video. We
defined a 6s window following the coin reveal (from the 3s to 9s marks in the video) in
which changes in eccrine gland activity are attributable to viewing the coins or the appear-
ance of the items themselves at the 5s mark. We then subtracted the value at the beginning
of this window from the maximum SCR within this window. The resulting value was the
SCR amplitude related to the items in the loot box. Following Dawson etal. (2007), in cal-
culating SCR amplitudes we considered as valid responses only those responses that were
accompanied by an increase in skin conductance levels greater than .05 microsiemens.
Subjective responses were analyzed in an identical manner to Experiment 1. SCRs and
PRPs were also analyzed using a similar strategy as the subjective responses. That is, for
all subjective, physiological and behavioural measures, loot outcomes that fell into their
respective tiers (rare, epic and legendary) were trimmed for outliers and then an average
score was calculated for boxes within each tier. Repeated measures ANOVAs with Fisher’s
LSD post hoc comparisons were conducted for each measure. Greenhouse–Geisser correc-
tions were again used in cases of sphericity violations.
Increases in skin conductance levels due to the anticipation of loot box openings were
based on a 4s window comprised of a baseline epoch (2s window that occurred before the
presentation of a loot box) and an anticipatory epoch (2s window which depicted the loot
box shaking prior to the reveal of its contents). Changes in SCLs for the baseline and the
anticipation period were measured using SCL slopes and were directly compared for each
trial using dependent t tests (Fig.4).
Objective andSubjective Loot Box Values—Validity Check
As in Experiment 1, a Pearson correlation between the 14 objective loot values and 14 final
averaged subjective values for these boxes were strongly positively correlated (r (13) = .95,
p ≤ .001).
Results for the scales assessing subjective value illustrated the expected pattern of
increasing value from rare to legendary tiers. For subjective ratings of value (in credits), a
repeated measures ANOVA with a Greenhouse–Geisser correction illustrated a significant
main effect of condition, F(1.243, 48.471) = 52.00, p ≤ .001, η p 2 = .57. Fisher’s LSD com-
parisons revealed that participants rated themselves as willing to spend the greatest amount
of in-game credits for legendary tier loots (M = 1059.47, SD = 857.30) and the least amount
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Journal of Gambling Studies (2021) 37:141–163
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for rare tier loots (M = 135.35, SD = 292.81). Ratings of value for the legendary tier were
significantly greater than the epic tier (M = 377.83, SD = 542.83) (p ≤ .001) and the rare tier
(p .001). Additionally, ratings of value were significantly higher for the epic tier in com-
parison to the rare tier (p ≤ .001). See Fig.5 for mean subjective value ratings.
Subjective Measures
Average ratings of subjective measures are shown in Fig.5. A repeated measures ANOVA
with a Greenhouse–Geisser correction was conducted for subjective ratings of arousal,
showing a significant main effect of condition, F(1.371, 53.486) = 141.21, p ≤ .001, η p 2 = .78.
As expected, Fisher’s LSD comparisons revealed that subjective ratings of arousal
were greatest for legendary tier loots (M = 3.13, SD = .95) and lowest for rare tier loots
(M = 1.39, SD = .49). Ratings of arousal for legendary tier loots were significantly greater
than epic tier loots (M = 2.05, SD = .74) (p .001) and significantly greater than rare tier
loots (p .001). Further, arousal ratings for epic tier loots were significantly greater than
rare tier loots (p ≤ .001).
A repeated measures ANOVA with a Greenhouse–Geisser correction conducted on sub-
jective measures of valence illustrated the same pattern of results. There was a main effect
of condition, F(1.506, 58.722) = 101.68, p ≤ .001, η p 2 = .72. Fisher’s LSD comparisons
also revealed that positive valence was greatest for legendary tier loots (M = 3.84, SD = .58)
and lowest for rare tier loots (M = 2.24, SD = .67). legendary tier loots were associated with
significantly greater ratings of positive valence than epic tier loots (M = 2.92, SD = .61)
(p .001) and rare tier loots (p ≤ .001). Positive valence ratings for epic tier loots were also
significantly greater than rare tier loots (p ≤ .001).
Subjective ratings of urge to open additional loot boxes also corresponded to this
pattern of an increase in scores across the three tiers. A repeated measures ANOVA
with a Greenhouse–Geisser correction illustrated a main effect of condition, F(1.317,
51.379) = 24.02, p ≤ .001, η p 2 = .38. Fisher’s LSD post hoc comparisons showed great-
est urge with the legendary tier (M = 55.63, SD = 29.46) and least urge with the rare tier
Fig. 4 Depiction of events relevant to the particular measures. For anticipatory arousal, a baseline period
consisted of 2s prior to the onset of a video stimulus, and the anticipatory period occurring from seconds 1
to 2. PRPs were sampled within a variable time window between the onset of the items (2s) and the end of
the opening (7s maximum). Six second SCR epochs were sampled 1s after the “coin reveal”
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(M = 32.84, SD = 28.30). Urge ratings for legendary tier loots were significantly greater
than urge ratings for epic tier loots (M = 40.00, SD = 27.42) (p.001) and rare tier loots
0
200
400
600
800
1000
1200
1400
Rare EpicLegendary
Average Value Rangs (credits)
Value
0
0.5
1
1.5
2
2.5
3
3.5
Rare EpicLegendary
Average Arousal Rangs
Subjecve Arousal
0
0.5
1
1.5
2
2.5
3
3.5
4
4.5
Rare Epic Legendary
Average Valence Rangs
Valence
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
Rare Epic Legendary
Average Urge Rangs
Urge
0
10
20
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90
RareEpic Legendary
Average Disappointment Rangs
Disappointment
**
**
**
**
**
** **
**
**
(b)
(a)
**
**
**
(c)
**
**
**
(d) (e)
Fig. 5 Results from subjective measures. a Average subjective ratings of loot box value (in credits) for rare,
epic and legendary tier loots. b Average ratings of subjective arousal for Rare, Epic and Legendary tier loot
boxes. c Average ratings of subjective affect for Rare, Epic and Legendary tier loot boxes. d Average ratings
of subjective urge to open additional loot boxes for Rare, Epic and Legendary tier loot boxes. e Average
ratings of subjective disappointment for Rare, Epic and Legendary tier loot boxes. Error bars are ± 1 SE.
*p ≤ .05; **p ≤ .001
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(p .001). Moreover, urge ratings for epic tier loots were significantly greater than urge
ratings for rare tier loots (p ≤ .001).
As predicted, results from ratings of disappointment revealed a monotonic decrease
in average scores from rare to legendary tiers. A repeated measures ANOVA with a
Greenhouse–Geisser correction revealed a significant main effect of condition, F(1.610,
62.802) = 149.77, p ≤ .001, η p 2 = .79. Fisher’s LSD comparisons showed the most disap-
pointment for rare tier loots (M = 76.07, SD = 22.69) and the least disappointment for the
legendary tier (M = 17.55, SD = 16.27). The legendary tier had significantly lower ratings
of disappointment than the epic tier (M = 53.18, SD = 23.43) (p .001) and the rare tier
(p .001). Ratings of disappointment were also significantly lower for epic tier loots than
rare tier loots (p ≤ .001).
Physiological andBehavioural Reactions toLoot boxes
A repeated measures ANOVA with a Greenhouse–Geisser correction revealed a signifi-
cant main effect of condition for SCR amplitudes, F(1.232, 46.816) = 11.39, p ≤ .001,
η p 2 = .23. Further, Fisher’s LSD comparisons revealed no significant difference between
the rare tier loots (M = .58, SD = .28) and epic tier loots (M = .54, SD = .29) (p = .08). However,
SCR amplitudes in response to legendary tier loots (M = .77, SD = .49) were significantly
greater than those for rare tier loots (p .05) and epic tier loots (p ≤ .05). See Fig.6 for a
representative example of the sizeable SCR amplitude for legendary loots compared to the
epic and rare loots.
Similarly, there was a main effect of condition for the force with which partici-
pants pressed the modified mouse, F(1.433, 55.903) = 4.53, p ≤ .05, η p 2 = .10 (with a
Fig. 6 Raw SCR values over 6s following the ‘coin reveal’ of a loot box opening for a representative par-
ticipant (determined by the median response average for legendary loots). The raw values depict the median
participants’ average amplitudes after viewing a legendary, epic, and rare tier loot box respectively. For all
trials, participants SCLs were forced to zero via subtraction at the beginning of the SCR window—thus the
figure shows changes in SCL over the 6s window
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Greenhouse–Geisser Correction). Fisher’s LSD comparisons found no significant differ-
ence in force between the rare tier loots (M = .13, SD = .03) and epic tier loots (M = .14,
SD = .03) (p = .43). Similar to the SCR amplitudes, significantly greater force was found
for legendary tier loots (M = .14, SD = .04) versus rare tier loots (p .05) and epic tier loots
(p ≤ .05).
Lastly, a repeated measures ANOVA with a Greenhouse–Geisser correction demon-
strated a significant main effect of tier for PRPs, F(1.479, 57.667) = 21.16, p ≤ .001, η p 2 = .35.
Fisher’s LSD post hoc tests revealed that players had smaller PRPs for the rare tier
(M = 4.91, SD = 1.09) in comparison to both epic (M = 5.40, SD = 1.05, p ≤ .001) and leg-
endary tiers (M = 5.70, SD = 1.11, p .001). Epic and legendary also significantly differed
in participant PRP lengths (p ≤ .001). See Fig. 7 for graphical illustrations of these physi-
ological and behavioural measures.
Anticipatory Arousal
A paired samples t test revealed significantly greater SCL slopes in the anticipatory period
(M = .0002, SD = .0003) in comparison to the baseline period (M = -.00002, SD = .0001),
t(39) = − 3.88, p ≤ .001 (see Fig. 8). The lower panels of Fig. 8 graphically depict the
Fig. 7 Results from physiological and behavioural measures. a Average participant SCR amplitudes for
Rare, Epic and Legendary tier loot boxes. b Average force exerted on modified mouse to initiate the follow-
ing loot box opening for Rare, Epic and Legendary tier loot boxes. c Average length of PRPs for Rare, Epic
and Legendary tier loot boxes. Error bars are ± 1 SE. * p ≤ .05; ** p ≤ .001
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158
Journal of Gambling Studies (2021) 37:141–163
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continuous changes in SCLs of two participants who fell at the median for SCL increases
during the anticipation of the loot box reveal. This figure clearly shows a ramping up of of
physiological arousal in anticipation of the loot box event (see Fig.8).
General Discussion
The current research aimed to characterize how loot box users respond to loot box
rewards of varying value. We reasoned that if responses were similar to that reported for
slots players reacting to varying sizes of monetary wins at the hedonic and motivational
level, then it would indicate a need for loot boxes to be similarly regulated to prevent or
reduce problematic usage. Participants were exposed to a series of video stimuli depict-
ing loot box openings from the game Overwatch, with loots ranging in value based on
the game’s reward tier hierarchy. For each opening, we gauged their subjective ratings
of value, as well as subjective experiences of arousal, valence, and urge in Experiment
1. Experiment 2 employed the same subjective measures, while also measuring physi-
ological and behavioural experiences of arousal and reward valence. In Experiment 1,
we provide initial evidence that players systematically discriminate valuable from less
valuable loots based on the rarity of the items, which corresponds with the game’s item
value hierarchy (e.g., rare, epic and legendary tiers). Experiment 1 also showed that
loots of greater rarity are subjectively more arousing, positively valenced and induc-
ing of urge to open more boxes. Experiment 2 successfully replicated the results for
these subjective measures, in addition to supplying converging evidence of the arousing,
hedonically rewarding and motivating nature of these non-monetary rewards with PRPs,
5.3
5.4
5.5
5.6
5.7
5.8
5.9
100
300
500
700
900
1100
1300
1500
1700
1900
2100
2300
2500
2700
2900
3100
3300
3500
3700
3900
eulaVecnatcudnoCnikS
Time (ms)
Raw Skin Conductance Values over Time
(Parcipant A)
1.05
1.1
1.15
1.2
1.25
1.3
1.35
100
300
500
700
900
1100
1300
1500
1700
1900
2100
2300
2500
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2900
3100
3300
3500
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3900
Skin Conductance Value
Time (ms)
Raw Skin Conductance Values over Time
(Parcipant B)
(b) (c)
-0.00005
0
0.00005
0.0001
0.00015
0.0002
0.00025
BaselineAncipaon
Period
Average SCL Slopes (μS)
Ancipatory Skin Conductance Levels
(SCLs)
(a)
Fig. 8 a Comparisons of participants’ physiological arousal between the baseline and anticipation period
using average skin conductance slopes for all loot box events. b, c Raw skin conductance values of two
median participants during the baseline and anticipation period. The vertical line denotes the transition
from the baseline (before the loot box video starts) to the anticipatory period (after the loot box movie
starts). Error bars are ± 1 SE. * p ≤ .05; ** p ≤ .001
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SCRs and force measures. Our data provide strong evidence for the allure of these non-
monetary reward items, and the motivational impact such rewards have on players.
In contrasting players subjective value with the objective value of the loots, we showed
that participants found loots containing items of greater rarity to be more valuable both at
the group level (e.g., the means) and the individual level (e.g., correlations). Specifically, at
the group level, the magnitude of the ratings of subjective value were titrated to the magni-
tude of the rarity across the three designated reward tiers. Similarly, correlations revealed
that players’ ratings of subjective loot box value corresponded with the objective loot box
values. This finding is an important confirmation of our assumption that loot boxes con-
taining items of greater rarity would be more valuable to participants than more common
items.
Similar to the indisputable, rewarding feeling of winning money, we show that obtain-
ing in-game items within a loot box appear to activate the same reward responses as money
in a slot machine (Dixon etal. 2013, 2015, 2018a, b). Our PRP results mimicked partici-
pants subjective “value” ratings for loots over the different reward tiers, such that there was
a monotonic increase in pause length with increasing reward tier value. Specifically, loots
in the legendary tier elicited longer pauses than the more common, lowest valued tier of
loot boxes. Post-reinforcement pauses are seen as a direct measure of the hedonic pleasure
associated with rewarding stimuli, and such PRP results mirror findings of greater PRPs
following bigger wins in slots play (Dixon etal. 2013). Coupled with the subjective ratings
of value, such findings are indicative of players’ awareness and sensitivity to the value of
different loots, despite loot boxes not conferring any real-world monetary worth.
Our findings also suggest that items of the greatest rarity were the most subjectively
and physiologically arousing, hedonically pleasing, and importantly the most inducing of
urge to open another box. Specifically, subjective ratings of arousal, valence and urge all
showed the same monotonic increase with increasing reward tier. Convergently, for disap-
pointment, players showed a monotonic decrease with increasing reward tier (i.e., the most
common loots were the most disappointing, the least common loots the least disappoint-
ing). Taken together, the fact that these subjective measures were yoked to the magnitude
of the objective reward value suggest that the degree of positive excitement elicited for
these events is related to the rarity of the loots in the game. Similarly, the legendary reward
tier loots were associated with greater skin conductance responses and force (a comple-
mentary measure of positive arousal) compared to epic or rare loots. Thus, our subjective,
physiological and behavioural indices of arousal converge to support the notion that the
rarest loots (those falling in the legendary category) are the most rewarding, exciting and
motivating events for players.
Unlike our subjective measures and PRP results, there was no differentiation in force
magnitude nor skin conductance amplitude between loots corresponding to the epic and
rare tiers. As force is typically quite sensitive to the reward magnitudes in slots (Dixon
et al. 2015, 2018a, b), this lack of differentiation may be due to the smaller disparity
between the value ranges of the rare and epic tier in comparison to the much larger dis-
parity in value associated with legendary tier boxes. As can be seen in Table1 the upper
bound of the rare tier (225 credits) and the lower bound of the epic tier (325 credits) differ
by only 100 credits whereas the upper bound of the epic tier (500 credits) and the lower
bound of the legendary tier (1075 credits differs by 575 credits. Thus, it may be that ‘rare’
and ‘epic’ tiers defined by the game, are too similar to be differentiated by SCR and force
measures. Importantly, both measures are convergently sensitive to the presentation of loot
boxes containing the most uncommon items.
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Even before seeing the items in the loot box, participants showed a marked increase in
arousal in anticipation of the loot box opening. Previous research has illustrated increased
skin conductance and activation of arousal-related brain regions during reward anticipa-
tion (Critchley etal. 2001). The finding that loot boxes elicit strong anticipatory arousal
suggests that participants treat loot boxes as having the potential to confer reward. Such
anticipatory arousal patterns are akin to player experience in slots play, such that there is a
buildup in anticipation as the reels spin and sequentially settle (Dixon etal. 2011).
While there may be a build-up of anticipation in both slots and loot box openings, there
are some subtle differences in the reveal of outcomes that may make the subjective feeling
of anticipation distinct between the two games. For instance, slot machine reel symbols can
be used as cues to index the proximity of a desired outcome as each reel sequentially set-
tles. A classic example includes near-miss outcomes in slots—such outcomes are driven by
cues that seemingly inform the player how close they are to their desired goal (e.g., a large
win or a jackpot). In the case of loot boxes, game designers go to great lengths to illustrate
general cues designed to increase arousal. In Overwatch, prior to displaying any contents
the loot box is shown to tremble and shake—reminiscent and perhaps hoping to mirror one
trembling with anticipation. To our knowledge there is no comparable feature in standard
slot machine games.
Physiological arousal has been implicated in the maintenance of gambling behaviours
across multiple modes of gambling, and our results for physiological arousal and urge dove-
tail with these previous findings from the gambling literature (Clark etal. 2012; Baudinet
and Blaszczynski 2013; Stange etal. 2017a, b). The gradual ramping up of arousal and the
fact that participants experienced additional increases in physiological arousal following
the coin reveal (especially for higher value loots) corroborates players’ urge ratings and
confirms the strong motivational force of these uncommon rewards. The urge to open more
loot boxes following viewing of higher valued loot boxes may have implications for play-
ers’ behaviours regarding loot box use. For instance, there could be concern that increases
in urge to open another loot box after receiving a valuable loot box during game play may
invigorate players to access more loot boxes, either through continued gameplay (e.g.,
requiring an increased investment of time) or through purchasing (e.g., requiring increased
monetary investment).
In summary, our research lends credence to previous commentaries and research sug-
gesting that loot boxes are psychologically akin to gambling (Drummond and Sauer 2018;
Brooks and Clark 2019). The current research is among the first to provide empirical evi-
dence that the reveal of highly desirable items increases both arousal and more importantly
urge to open more loot boxes, for the potential for problematic play in loot box games.
Demonstrating such reward reactivity and urge for the rarest loots using loot box related
cues is important for understanding how these gambling-like gaming features may result in
problematic use, as they elicit responses that mirror those of foreknown addictive gambling
forms. This is especially concerning when coupled with the structural similarities between
loot boxes and slot machines, such as the use of a variable ratio reinforcement schedule.
In variable ratio schedules, rewards are unpredictable and high valued (good) loots occur
much less frequently than lower valued (bad) loots. This reward schedule framework has
been associated with potentially maladaptive behaviours in gambling, and thus can poten-
tially extend to loot boxes (Haw 2008). In most jurisdictions, loot boxes are very loosely
regulated compared to legalized gambling activities. For one, gambling venues and web-
sites are obligated to include help resources for gamblers who feel that their gambling
behaviour is out of control. As the harms related to loot box use are becoming more salient,
one direction for regulation could involve requiring games to feature similar safeguards.
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Another key regulatory discrepancy between games with loot boxes and gambling involves
strictly enforced age regulations. Our results support the need for such age regulations for
users under the legal gambling age.
Limitations
This experiment is not without limitations. Firstly, we did not differentiate reactivity
to these rewards among players who may potentially be at risk of excessive use of loot
boxes. However, research has yet to solidify what constitutes a problematic loot box
user, and thus, we are limited by the current research landscape. Secondly, in order to
maximize experimental control, we used video stimuli rather than loot boxes that were
obtained by the player. Future research should aim to replicate our findings in a more
naturalistic setting using real loot boxes either won through game play, or purchased
by the player. Given the added component of agency and ownership of rewards that are
either earned by one’s own gameplay, or purchased with one’s own money, one might
expect an amplification of the effects on the player that we have shown in this experi-
ment which lacks such agency. Finally, since the presentation and valuation system of
loot boxes is heterogeneous across games, future research should aim to reproduce our
results using loot box stimuli from other games.
Conclusion
In conclusion, our findings provide initial insight into the impact of loot box opening
on player reward reactivity and motivation. Despite conferring no real-world value,
loot boxes, especially those of greater rarity, are treated as rewarding and urge-inducing
events. While the relationship between loot boxes, problem video gaming and problem
gambling is still in need of further investigation, the consequences of such potential
associations have profound implications for the future regulation of these and similar
features in games.
Acknowledgements This research was supported by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council
of Canada through research Grants to M.J.D. We would also like to thank our research assistant Tenaaz Irani
for her help in developing the figures for this manuscript.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Ethical Standard All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with
the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki dec-
laration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Interna-
tional License (http://creat iveco mmons .org/licen ses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution,
and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the
source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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... From a psychological perspective, research has noted the similarity of loot boxes to gambling (Drummond & Sauer, 2018). Loot boxes contain stimuli that activate unplanned purchases due to internal or environmental triggers, such as variable-ratio reinforcement schedule or displaying attractive presentations when opened (Larche et al., 2021). Such purchases have been found to be associated with problems in social life . ...
... In other words, while in-game purchases are related to the degree of the gaming problem, the clinical perspective on issues related to adolescents' problematic gaming should focus on whether they are giving adequate consideration when making in-game purchases. Previous experimental studies have shown that the loot box is designed to generate impulsive purchases, similar to gambling (Larche et al., 2021). Therefore, in the future, it is necessary to examine in detail when and why unplanned purchases are triggered. ...
... Preoc is preoccupation; over, overuse; immer, immersion; social, social isolation; confli, interpersonal conflict; withd, withdrawal; PHQ, the Patient Health Questionnaire for Adolescents; day play, time spent per day on weekdays; end play, time spent per day on weekdays; allowance, monthly allowance (JPY); and pur money, amount of unplanned purchases per month (JPY) associated with some of the subscales of problematic online gaming (preoccupation and overuse) and with the amount of money spent on unplanned purchases per month. Since the use of loot boxes affect biological and psychological aspects such as subjective evaluation of value, emotional valence, arousal level, and urges for purchasers (Larche et al., 2021), they need to be considered separately from simple in-game purchases. In other words, from a clinical perspective, it is necessary to pay attention not only to the fact that problematic online gaming and unplanned purchases are relevant to the social functioning of adolescents, but also to the ways in which unplanned purchases are carried out. ...
Article
Full-text available
Studies have found that adolescents’ in-game purchases are related to psychosocial problems. In-game purchases, including loot boxes—which contain random video game items that can be purchased with real-world money—are new systems; therefore, the associated problems have not been fully examined. This study examined whether adolescents planned their in-game purchases and looked into the issues related to purchasing styles. We surveyed 1,052 Japanese high school students (591 females, 443 males, and 18 others, aged 15–18 years) on their monthly allowance, time spent on online gaming, in-game purchases, gaming problems, and depression symptoms. The results revealed that adolescents who made unplanned purchases reported a greater degree of problems than those who planned their purchases. Among the non-planners, loot box users had poorer mental health than nonuser counterparts. These results revealed the relationship between psychosocial problems and problematic gaming, including unplanned purchases and the use of loot boxes among adolescents. Therefore, these relationships become important areas to focus on, to understand problematic online gaming.
... This variable ratio reinforcement schedule is similar to that used in electronic gaming machines (EGMs) and is known to encourage rapid uptake and persistent repetitive behaviour in the hope of being rewarded (Ferster & Skinner, 1957;Griffiths, 2018). Loot boxes in games use other psychological techniques drawn from gambling to induce spending and persistence, including continual availability, in-game promotions, auditory and visual cues, and the use of electronic money over multiple micro-transactions that make expenditure difficult to track (Hing, Russell, Browne, et al., 2021a;Larche, Chini, Lee, Dixon, & Fernandes, 2019;Parent Zone, 2019). Given that loot boxes are not regulated as gambling in most jurisdictions, they typically lack consumer protections (King & Delfabbro, 2019a), such as age restrictions, clear information on the odds of winning (Xiao, Henderson, Yuhan, & Newall, 2021), and safer gambling tools. ...
... Nevertheless, these findings suggest that either loot boxes are increasing problem gambling symptoms, or they disproportionately attract vulnerable players Garea et al., 2021;Zendle & Cairns, 2018. Experimental studies have examined the psychological effects of loot boxes, finding these are similar to the effects of gambling in triggering arousal, reward responses and urges to continue the activity that could lead to problematic use (Brady and Prentice, 2021;Larche et al., 2019). Further, survey data from 7,767 loot box purchasers showed that the top 5% of spenders generated half of loot box revenue . ...
... Loot boxes operate with gambling-like mechanics where the award of prizes based on a variable reinforcement schedule may increase chasing and persistence (Drummond & Sauer, 2018;Ferster & Skinner, 1957;Griffiths, 2018). Opportunities for repetitive continuous play, auditory and visual reinforcement, and the difficulties in keeping track of multiple electronic microtransactions, may also increase impaired control over loot box spending Larche et al., 2019;Parent Zone, 2019). Experimental studies have found that loot box purchasing triggers arousal, reward responses and urges to persist (Brady and Prentice, 2021;Larche et al., 2019). ...
Article
Full-text available
Background and aims Purchasing loot boxes in digital games is akin to gambling as it involves risking money for a chance-based reward of uncertain value. Research has linked buying loot boxes to problem gambling amongst adolescents, but has not examined co-occurring gambling participation. This study examined links between loot box purchasing and problem gambling amongst adolescents while controlling for monetary gambling participation. Methods Two survey samples of Australians aged 12–17 years were recruited through advertisements ( n = 843) and online panels ( n = 826). They included n = 421 and n = 128 adolescents, respectively, who met criteria for problem gambling. Results Past-month loot box purchasing was significantly related to gambling problems in bivariate analyses. When including age, gender and past-month monetary gambling, loot box purchases were still associated with at-risk and problem gambling in both samples. As expected, these other predictors attenuated the predictive value of recent loot box purchases in relation to gambling problems. The odds-ratios, nevertheless, were still in the predicted direction and remained significant. When controlling for monetary gambling, age and gender, recent loot box purchasing increased the odds of problem gambling 3.7 to 6.0 times, and at-risk gambling 2.8 to 4.3 times. Discussion and conclusions While causal relationships between loot box purchasing and problem gambling remain unclear, the results indicate that loot boxes disproportionately attract adolescents experiencing gambling problems, adding to the financial stress already caused by gambling. Consumer protection measures, youth and parental education, and age restrictions on loot box games are needed to protect young people.
... En Reddit, el perfil característico es el de hombres jóvenes (18-24 años), mientras que en Amazon MTurk la edad promedio es superior (24-29 años) y la proporción de hombres y mujeres está balanceada. Por otro lado, dos estudios utilizaron medidas electrofisiológicas (Brady & Prentice, 2019;Larche et al., 2019) en una muestra de adultos jóvenes (18-30 años), mayoritariamente hombres. ...
... El total de los estudios incluidos en la revisión fueron de carácter transversal. De ellos, 2 fueron cuasiexperimentales basados en medidas electrofisiológicas (Brady & Prentice, 2019;Larche et al., 2019), y 20 fueron descriptivos y correlacionales con medidas de autoinforme o cuestionarios. De los estudios descriptivos, la mayoría de ellos (50%) reclutaron la muestra a través de Reddit y webs relacionadas con videojuegos ( Del total de estudios descriptivos y correlacionales, 10 estudiaron la relación entre el uso de cajas botín y los problemas de juego con apuesta (DeCamp, 2020;Kristiansen & Severin, 2019;Macey & Hamari 2018;Rockloff et al., 2021;Wardle & Zendle, 2020;Zendle 2019;Zendle & Cairns, 2018Zendle et al., , 2020b, mientras que tan solo 3 estudios exploraron la relación entre el uso de cajas botín y el abuso de videojuegos (Evren et al., 2021;Ide et al., 2021;King et al., 2020a). ...
... Finalmente, 7 investigaciones relacionaron el uso de cajas botín con ambas problemáticas (Brooks & Clark, 2019;Drummond et al., 2020;Hall et al., 2021;King et al., 2020b;Li et al., 2019;Von Meduna et al., 2020;Zendle, 2020). En cuanto a los 2 estudios cuasi experimentales, estos se centraron en investigar el potencial adictivo de las cajas botín (Brady & Prentice, 2019;Larche et al., 2019). ...
Article
Full-text available
Introducción: Las cajas botín, presentes en muchos videojuegos, son artículos que contienen recompensas (vir­tuales o monetarias) apreciadas por los jugadores. Las cajas pueden comprarse con dinero real y el resultado que se obtiene es aleatorio. Actualmente existe controversia sobre si la existencia de estas cajas puede favorecer un comportamiento de abuso de los videojuegos o generar problemas similares a los producidos por los juegos con apuestas monetarias. El objetivo de esta revisión fue analizar los estudios empíricos que han investigado estos po­sibles efectos. Método: Se realizó una búsqueda en Medline, ScienceDirect, Scopus y WoS. Un total de 22 artículos cumplieron con los criterios de inclusión. Resultados: Se encontró una relación significativa entre el uso de cajas botín, los problemas de juego con apuesta y el abuso de videojuegos. Además, a mayor gasto en cajas botín se en­contró una mayor gravedad de los problemas de juego. Conclusiones: El gasto en cajas botín puede incrementar los problemas de juego, y las personas con problemas de juego pueden mostrar predilección por los videojuegos con cajas botín. Se requieren estudios longitudinales para clarificar la dirección de la relación entre la compra de cajas botín, los problemas de juego y el abuso de videojuegos. Background: Loot boxes are items in video games that that contain rewards (virtual or monetary) appreciated by players. Loot boxes can be bought with real money and the result is random. Currently, there is controversy about whether the use of loot boxes is related to problematic gaming or problems similar to those caused by gambling. The aim of this systematic review was to analyse the empirical studies that have studied the relationship between loot boxes, problem gambling and problem gaming. Method: A search was conducted in Medline, ScienceDirect, Scopus and WoS. A total of 22 articles met the inclusion criteria. Results: A significant relationship was found among loot box engagement, problem gambling and problem gaming. In addition, the more a player spent on loot boxes, the more severe their problem gambling. Conclusions: Loot box spending can increase problem gambling, and problem gamblers may show a preference for videogames with loot boxes. The need is highlighted for longitudinal studies to clarify the direction of the relationship among loot box engagement, problem gambling and problem gaming.
... The remaining two studies examined physiological changes (Brady & Prentice, 2019;Larche et al., 2021) (see Table 2). Both studies focused on adult populations of a specific subset of gamers. ...
... The other study included in this category (Larche et al., 2021) examined self-reported arousal, valence, urge, and disappointment as well as the post-reinforcement pauses (PRPs), skin conductance response (SCR), and force exerted in a mouse-click of Overwatch players who attended the University of Waterloo (Canada) across two studies (n = 47, n = 46). The first study solely assessed self-reported arousal, valence, and urge in participants after they are shown a clip of a short sequence of a loot box being opened. ...
... The present review identified two studies (Brady & Prentice, 2019;Larche et al., 2021) that assessed the physiological similarities between opening a loot box and participating in gambling games. Brady and Prentice (2019) reported small increases in galvanic skin response (GSR) while both playing a game of FIFA and opening loot boxes in the game, indicating a small increase in excitement levels. ...
Article
Background Micro-transactions are an increasingly popular form of monetisation for videogame companies. The similarities between specific micro-transaction types and forms of gambling have been identified in literature. However, the relationship between all forms of micro-transaction and both problem gaming and gambling is currently unclear. Purpose The present review assessed the outcomes of studies investigating the relationship between videogame micro-transactions, problem gaming, and problem gambling. Method A systematic review was conducted searching for relevant literature since 2010. Four databases were searched. These were PsycINFO, Web of Science, Scopus, and Pubmed. Results A total of 19 cross-sectional studies met the inclusion criteria and were categorised into three groups, (i) loot boxes, problem gaming and gambling, (ii) pay-to-win micro-transactions, problem gaming and gambling, and (iii) multiple micro-transaction types, problem gaming and gambling. Links between loot boxes and problem gambling were identified. The reviewed studies also indicated demographic differences in micro-transaction preference. Frequency of payment for micro-transactions was suggested as a key factor in the relationship between micro-transactions, problem gaming and problem gambling. Conclusion Further research is necessary to provide further evidence for and to understand the causality of these relationships. It is recommended that purchasing loot boxes is classified as a form of gambling and that frequency of micro-transaction purchase is regulated in videogames.
... Further, loot box engagement in general, which can include winning, purchasing, or opening loot boxes, has also been associated with certain problematic gambling-related behaviour and beliefs (e.g., irrational cognitions associated with luck and chance; Brooks & Clark, 2019). Finally, findings from a recent study suggest that gamers respond to loot boxes in the same way that gamblers respond to slot machines (Larche et al., 2019). Loot boxes that contain rare items induce greater arousal (i.e., skin conductance responses), feelings of reward, and the urge to continue to play. ...
... Loot boxes that contain rare items induce greater arousal (i.e., skin conductance responses), feelings of reward, and the urge to continue to play. These reactions mirror the reactions of gamblers to rare wins in slot machine games (Larche et al., 2019). ...
Article
Full-text available
This study examined motives to engage or refrain from engaging with gambling and loot boxes (i.e., in-game “boxes” that can be won within a game or purchased with in-game currency or real money, and which contain a random selection of prizes or objects). University students (n = 321) and community members (n = 279) completed an online questionnaire that included open-ended motives questions. Qualitative inductive content analysis was used to identify a number of overlapping motives to engage with or refrain from gambling and loot box content. Themes associated with motives to gamble included enjoyment, the chance to win, boredom, and charitable intentions. Self-reported reasons to engage with loot boxes included enjoyment, the chance to win, game progression, and passive engagement. In contrast, themes associated with refraining from gambling included negative consequences (e.g., addiction), uncertain outcomes, disinterest, finances, and accessibility. Similarly, reasons to refrain from loot boxes included negative consequences, gambling concerns, disinterest, finances, and accessibility. Overall, these findings, and particularly the overlapping themes between gambling and loot boxes engagement, provide further context and insight into the burgeoning research on loot boxes and assist in delineating their relation to gambling. Motives to engage with or refrain from gambling and loot box content: An exploratory qualitative investigation.
... In the context of loot boxes, it would refer to making the purchase of loot boxes difficult or may involve regulating the design of loot boxes to be less predatory or less misleading. Architectural solutions conceptualized include removing the 'Audio-Visual Design of Loot Box Opening' (King & Delfabbro, 2019, p. 172), which involves a celebratory experience when opening loot boxes that reinforces addictive behaviours in consumers (Larche et al., 2019). Another would be 'Removal of Repeat or Duplicate (i.e. ...
... An increasing tax may cause undue negative gameplay experience for consumers as well, and may become a pseudo-ban on loot boxes. As a measured response, the state could explore mandating the removal of audio-visual content in videogames that utilize variable-ratio reinforcement schedules (Larche et al., 2019). The removal of such gameplay experiences that reinforce addictive behaviours could help restrain consumers from developing the urge to overspend on loot boxes. ...
Article
‘Loot boxes’ are a type of videogame monetization model that contains randomized rewards of varying rarities which emerged in recent years. The element of chance seeks to entice players into buying loot boxes in hopes of receiving a rare and desirable reward. The design of loot boxes has been identified to be addictive and to entice players to spend more money than they estimate they would. With links to addiction and gambling behaviours, loot boxes may cause social harm if unregulated. Singapore is not new to the videogaming scene and may seek to regulate loot boxes should it emerge as a social problem amongst Singaporeans. By acknowledging existing approaches towards regulating loot boxes and situating loot boxes in Singapore’s social context, this paper explores Lessig’s four modalities of constraint as a framework to hypothesize regulatory options for Singapore.
... Furthermore, forcing the probability of winning each reward to be equal would prevent game companies from adopting a range of complexity-increasing features to their loot boxes, such as pity-timers (Xiao, Henderson, Yang, & Newall, 2021). Rarer rewards (that are cosmetically more attractive or stronger in competitive settings) were created so that at least some players would be motivated to "chase" these by buying more loot boxes to gain social prestige or competitive advantages, particularly in multiplayer games (Larche et al., 2021;Nicklin et al., 2021). However, with equal probability loot boxes, players would be able to make purchasing decisions in a more straightforward manner, and would not have to learn, remember and process "a wide range of probabilities," as was recently admitted to have been implemented by Electronic Arts (2019) in their FIFA games' loot boxes. ...
Article
Full-text available
Loot boxes are virtual products in video games that provide randomized rewards, and accordingly share structural similarities with gambling. Policymakers around the world are presently considering how best to regulate loot boxes. Current loot box consumer protection measures, such as requiring probability disclosures, have been inspired by similar harm reduction approaches in gambling. However, unlike in many gambling games, most loot boxes' reward structures are arguably too complex for consumers to be meaningfully protected by probability disclosures alone. But promisingly, loot boxes can readily be redesigned to be more ethical because they are digital products. Based on behavioural science principles, this article proposes four reductions to loot box reward complexity. The decision-making environment can be simplified by capping (i) the maximum number of loot boxes per game and (ii) the maximum number of potential rewards per loot box, and by (iii) equalizing winning probabilities across rewards. Additionally, (iv) companies can implement "exhaustible" loot boxes that provide the player with every potential reward after a predetermined amount of money has been spent, thereby effectively instituting a maximum spending limit. These ethical game design proposals can credibly reduce financial harms from loot boxes while both maintaining consumer freedom and preserving companies' commercial interests.
... Certain particularly rare and highly sought-after loot box content is worth hundreds, and potentially over one thousand, euros on the secondary market [33] . Indeed, opening 'rare' rewards from loot boxes elicits physiological responses similar to participating in certain traditional gambling activities [34] . One adult player reportedly spent over US$10,000 on loot boxes in one game over a twoyear period [35] , and four children spent 'nearly £550 in three weeks' of their father's money without permission and still failed to obtain the rare item that they were hoping for [36] . ...
Preprint
Full-text available
Purpose of review: Loot boxes are gambling-like monetisation mechanics in video games that are purchased for opportunities to obtain randomised in-game rewards. Gambling regulation is increasingly being informed by insights from public health. Despite conceptual similarities between loot boxes and gambling, there is much less international consensus on loot box regulation. Various approaches to regulating loot boxes are reviewed via a public health framework that highlights various trade- offs between individual liberties and harm prevention.Recent findings: Many countries have considered regulation, but as yet only a few countries have taken tangible actions. Existing regulatory approaches vary greatly. More restrictively, Belgium has effectively ‘banned’ paid loot boxes and prohibits their sale to both children and adults. In contrast, more liberally, China only requires disclosure of the probabilities of obtaining potential rewards to provide transparency and perhaps help players to make more informed purchasing decisions. Most other countries (e.g., the UK) have adopted a ‘wait-and-watch’ approach by neither regulating loot box sales nor providing any dedicated consumer protection response. Industry self-regulation has also been adopted, although this appears to elicit lower rates of compliance than comparable national legal regulation.Summary: Many potential public health approaches to loot box regulation, such as expenditure limits or harm-reducing modifications to loot box design (e.g., fairer reward structures), deserve further attention. Existing interventions (including varying degrees of regulation, as adopted by different countries, and industry self- regulation), both in terms of compliance and clinical benefits, should be further assessed. The current international variation in loot box regulation presents opportunities to compare the merits of different approaches over time.
... For all these reasons, studies have been carried out to explore the potential of loot boxes to generate addiction (Brady & Pretince, 2019;Drummond et al., 2018). Although the research is at an early stage, the central element that could confer addictive potential to loot boxes is the variable (Drummond et al., 2018;Larche, Chini, Lee, Dixon & Fernandes, 2021) or random reward mechanism (Navas & Perales, 2014), depending on the algorithm underlying the loot box in the different video games. As a result of these mechanisms, environmental cues, including aspects such as eye-catching visual and sound effects (Parke, Parke & Blaszczynski, 2016) and near-misses could become excessively powerful incentives, ultimately leading to loss of control (Berridge & Robinson, 2016). ...
Article
Full-text available
Loot boxes are items within video games which players pay to open and, ultimately, to randomly obtain an object whose value is initially unknown. Being easily accessible for both teenagers and adults, loot boxes have been associated with gambling. The purpose of this study was to explore the use of loot boxes and to analyze whether it is associated with guilt, loss of control, and emotional distress. To this end, 475 participants (266 adolescents and 209 adults) were surveyed on their habits regarding loot boxes and gaming. The results showed that teenagers invest more money in loot boxes than adults. This expenditure increases when a new item is announced on online platforms (Twitch, YouTube). Additionally, not obtaining the coveted items, which is common due to loot box randomness, predicts greater levels of guilt and emotional distress, while obtaining them predicts subsequent loss of control. Thus, 45.5% reported guilt over purchasing, 50% distress and 17% loss of control. Summarizing, loot boxes are increasingly present in video games, and owing to their psycho-emotional outcomes, it is necessary for future research to address this matter in order to develop prevention strategies and to provide support to vulnerable populations.
... Todo lo anterior ha motivado la aparición de estudios que exploran la capacidad de las loot boxes para generar adicción (Brady y Pretince, 2019;Drummond et al., 2018). Aunque la investigación es incipiente, el elemento central que podría conferir el potencial adictivo a las cajas botín es el programa de reforzamiento de razón variable (Drummond et al., 2018;Larche, Chini, Lee, Dixon y Fernandes, 2021) o de razón aleatoria (Navas y Perales, 2014), dependiendo de la mecánica subyacente de la caja botín en los diferentes videojuegos. Bajo estos programas, las claves ambientales, incluyendo aspectos como los efectos visuales y sonoros llamativos (Parke, Parke y Blaszczynski, 2016) y los near-misses o cuasi-aciertos podrían acabar adquiriendo una excesiva saliencia de incentivo que llevaría en última instancia a la pérdida de control (Berridge y Robinson, 2016). ...
Article
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Loot boxes are items in video games that can be paid for with real-world money and contain randomised contents. In recent years, loot boxes have become increasingly common. There is concern in the research community that similarities between loot boxes and gambling may lead to increases in problem gambling amongst gamers. A large-scale survey of gamers (n = 7,422) found evidence for a link (η² = 0.054) between the amount that gamers spent on loot boxes and the severity of their problem gambling. This link was stronger than a link between problem gambling and buying other in-game items with real-world money (η² = 0.004), suggesting that the gambling-like features of loot boxes are specifically responsible for the observed relationship between problem gambling and spending on loot boxes. It is unclear from this study whether buying loot boxes acts as a gateway to problem gambling, or whether spending large amounts of money on loot boxes appeals more to problem gamblers. However, in either case these results suggest that there may be good reason to regulate loot boxes in games.
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