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Study: Video game 'loot boxes' linked to gambling addiction in young people

At least one U.S. senator is demanding the video game industry to ban 'loot boxes' and 'pay-to-win' systems.

A new study claims "loot boxes" and "pay to win" systems in video games can cause gambling addictions in young people.

These loot boxes are digital items that can be paid for with real money or earned through playing and contain randomized tools, costumes or weapons. They're often found in popular video games like "Star Wars: Battlefront II," "Overwatch" and "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4."

Loot boxes can also be found in the mobile app game Candy Crush, which offers a bundle of currency, game boosters and 24 hours of unlimited lives for $149.99.

Loot boxes aren't a new concept. Packs of baseball cards and Pokemon cards are considered loot boxes because they contain randomized content. There's a thrill and a game of chance involved when you buy a loot box or pack of cards and open it up to see what you got.

Some video games use this virtual loot box concept to make money. Others give you the option to earn the loot box through gameplay or in-game money.

Loot boxes are a $30 billion industry, according to Juniper Research, a tech research firm. Researchers predict the industry will reach $50 billion by 2022.

The study published in the Royal Society Open Science Journal said 16-18-year-old gamers it surveyed bought loot boxes for a variety of reasons, several of which were "similar to common reasons for engaging in gambling."

"When video game companies allow adolescents to buy loot boxes, they are potentially exposing them to negative consequences," the authors said in their conclusion. 

The study claims loot boxes can cause gambling problems among older adolescents and allow game companies to profit from those with gambling problems. The link between video game loot boxes and gambling in adolescents was "stronger" than the research done on adult video game players, the authors claim.

Ongoing arguments in the video game community kick back up every time a new game is released and players complain of loot boxes. Prominent gaming blog Kotaku published a column back in 2017, saying these loot box systems are "designed to exploit us."

Kotaku called loot boxes a "devious economic trap, designed to take players' money." And, "you're not expected to resist them forever."

Sen. Josh Hawley said video game companies are using these systems to "addict children to their games and spend their parents' money."

CNN reported Hawley crafted a bill that would ban video games from offering these loot boxes. The proposed bill would apply to games that target people under 18 and games "whose developers knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions," Hawley said in a statement to CNN.

Hawley said in early May he will introduce "The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act" in the U.S. Senate soon.

Hawley isn't the first politician to propose legislation banning loot boxes in video games. In 2018, lawmakers in Hawaii proposed two bills that would ban loot box video games for those younger than 21.

Then, New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan wrote a letter to the Entertainment Software Rating Board asking it to re-examine loot box systems while raising concerns over whether loot boxes should be considered gambling.

In a recent meeting before the UK Parliament's Digital, Cultural, Media, and Sports Committee, Electronic Arts (EA) said the company used the term "surprise mechanics" to describe loot boxes. 

Kerry Hopkins, EA's vice president of legal and government affairs, compared the loot boxes to popular children's toys like Hatchimals or LOL Surprise, calling them "quite ethical and quite fun."

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