It is almost a law of public policy that technological innovations cause moral panics. It is unsurprising then that one of the more recent innovations in the video game industry, “loot boxes,” have become targets of similar criticism. Since 2017 especially, loot boxes have been the subject of controversy involving claims of addiction and gambling, accompanied by calls for government regulation that bear all the trappings of a moral panic.
Loot boxes exist in many different forms and under a variety of names, but in general a loot box is “a consumable virtual item which can be redeemed to receive a randomized selection of further virtual items [loot], ranging from simple customization options for a player’s game character, to … weapons, armor, virtual currency, additional skills and even completely new or exclusive characters.”
Not all video games contain loot box mechanics, and not all loot boxes are controversial; they become controversial when they can be purchased with real-world money.
The source of controversy here is that buying a loot box means paying for a randomized reward of variable value. This in turn results in loot boxes being likened to gambling, and to related claims, such as that loot boxes are addictive and, in a sense, similar to slot machines. Therefore, loot boxes might cause or encourage behavioral problems like those sometimes found among problem gamblers. These concerns are even more pressing because loot boxes are sometimes available for purchase in games played by children.
Given the severity of the risks, it is unsurprising that there have been many calls from academics, advocacy groups, and governments for loot boxes to be banned outright, or at the very least, strongly regulated.
This paper reviews the existing evidence relating to concerns that loot boxes create serious social harm. My discussion draws heavily on a recent systematic review of the literature in which I show that existing research suffers from many serious problems and fails to support the claim that loot boxes are currently a source of serious harm.
Based on that systematic, critical review of the literature, I conclude that there is no reason to believe at this point that loot boxes are harmful. Despite the lack of evidence, however, loot boxes have been a persistent topic of debate in the media and in policy circles for the past five years. This divergence between public outcry and scientific evidence is a good indication that the loot box controversy is only merely a recent example of moral panic in video games.
Dozens of studies have appeared over the past five years, yet our knowledge of how players interact with loot boxes has grown very little. Again and again, we reach the same conclusion—the low quality of available research means that we lack concrete, reliable answers across virtually every question of interest: how prevalent loot box engagement is; how much players spend; the practical significance of their spending; the costs and benefits involved; how loot box engagement changes over time, etc.
In fact, the closer we look at the results of the literature, the more we find evidence hinting that loot boxes are not responsible for a widespread epidemic of problem behavior. Specifically:
- Research on gaming is mostly on adults, not adolescents, and its study populations are not very representative of gamers.
- We don’t know how many gamers pay for loot boxes, but it may not be a lot: surveys find from 1.8% to 25% of adolescent gamers and from 8 to 11% among adults. Those surveys are not comprehensive, but they indicate the percentage of gamers who buy loot boxes may not be very large.
- Overall, there appear to be a wide range of motivations for gamers buying loot boxes, many of which are unconnected to alleged similarities between opening loot boxes and engaging in traditional gambling.
- The tools used to identify problem gaming were created to identify problem gambling and haven’t been adapted to gaming and so create false positives. Even then, some of the studies on problem gaming find no link with loot boxes.
- The biggest fear is of loot boxes fueling addiction and overspending. But there is at present no evidence to suggest that loot box spending is excessive among either adults or adolescents, much less that it is responsible for any widespread harm.
This lack of evidence of harm from loot boxes is troubling because the literature on loot boxes is already having an impact on policy discussions despite its faults and is regularly cited in the popular press to highlight the alleged dangers of loot boxes. Moreover, the loot box controversy is different from earlier outrages in one crucial respect: Whereas in earlier video game moral panics, players and developers united against policymakers and parent advocacy groups, loot boxes have caused many gamers to take the side of regulators against the industry.