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Extensive UK loot box study digs into why players are drawn to random chance IAPs

A recently published study likens loot box mechanics to gambling while also exploring the complicated reasons why players are attracted to those purchases.

Alissa McAloon, Publisher

April 5, 2021

3 Min Read

Conversations around loot boxes, their relation to gambling, and the argument for either self or government regulation have quieted down some over the years, but the issue remains far from settled.

A new UK study, commissioned by the folks at GambleAware (but written independently by researchers at the universities of Plymouth and Wolverhampton), digs into years of loot box research and discourse to explore the monetization mechanic's relationship to gambling and offer new insight into the many different player motivations that make loot boxes such an appealing purchase.

One interesting thing to note going into the extensive report (which can be found in its entirety here) is that researcher's definition of loot boxes hinges on a randomized mechanic. Specifically, a loot box in the context of the report is "any game-related purchase with a chance-based outcome."

This means researchers no longer count Fortnite's Loot Llamas as a loot box since their contents can be viewed before purchase, while they argue the pay-to-accelerate egg incubators featured in Pokemon Go shift the game's random egg hatches from innocent surprise to loot box in disguise.

The report assembled by this particular team of researchers doesn't just present its own new data. Instead, it offers a deep dive into the history of loot boxes and pulls data from past research to examine it under a different and wider lens. Included in that larger overview of loot box history is an interesting look at how the mechanic sprung to popularity between 2012 and 2014 and, despite a small dip in 2017, has continued to gain momentum since.

As loot boxes have permeated many different games and genres at this point, researchers discovered that the motivations or, really, the pressure players feel to purchase loot boxes can have quite varied origins as well.

By analyzing and combining data from several other investigations into a potential link between loot boxes and gambling, researchers examined the cases of 7,771 loot box purchasers and found that the data "establishes a significant correlation between loot box expenditure and problem gambling scores," found on page 16 in the report linked above.

By reanalyzing that mass of data from past reports, researchers also found that half of the game industry's loot box revenue comes from the top 5 percent of spenders, and that nearly one-third of that top 5 percent meet the qualifications of a 'problem gambler'.

However researchers argue that the actual individual motivations players have for purchasing loot boxes have gone largely unstudied so far. Aiming to fill that void, the team conducted in-depth interviews with 28 individuals from the larger pool of 13,000 people originally screened for their data on the demographics of loot box buyers. (Data from that higher-level survey is found on page 29 of the report, and shared briefly in the image just above.)

Quotes from the interviews themselves can be found in the full report as well, but based on those conversations researchers categorized loot box motivations into seven different themes.

  • Opening Experience: the rush of getting something new or the visual thrill of opening a box.

  • Value of Box Contents: high-value rewards, aesthetically pleasing drops, or powerful pulls.

  • Game-Related Elements: progression boosters, grind skippers, pay-to-win items, a need to be competitive, enhancing the game experience, or supporting game developers

  • Social Influences: Bragging rights, association with loot box buying friends, the influence of streamers, opening boxes as a means of socialization, or to support charity events

  • Emotive/Impulsive Motivations: A lack of control, boredom, non-specific motivations

  • Fear of Missing Out: Wanting to feel included or avoid being left out

  • Triggers/Facilitators: Deals or limited promotions, limited-time events, disconnect from the feeling of spending real money

All of this is explored more in-depth in the full report found here. With all of this in mind, researchers argue that loot box regulation, either government- or developer-led, should better disclose real-world currency costs and drop odds, introduce spending limits, and include provisions for both oversight and education.

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