Can ‘loot boxes’ in video games have the potential to be a stepping stone to gambling addiction?

Can 'loot boxes' in video games have the potential to be a stepping stone to gambling addiction?

My dad used to talk about a farmer he knew who lost everything for a few years to a gambling addiction – though no one called it an addiction at the time.

The farmer sold the animals to pay off his gambling debts. Gradually, all the animals left. Then he started selling the fields and gradually all the fields disappeared as well.

It has long stuck with me as an example of how gambling addiction takes everything away.

It’s only been 10 years since gambling was defined as an addiction in the highly influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Basically, gambling involves laying down money for possible prizes with the outcome depending heavily on chance.

When a person becomes dependent on the mix of experiences – and most gamblers do not become addicted, just as most drinkers are not alcoholics – then the attraction can be diverted.

For example, many observers think that buying “loot boxes” in video games falls into this category. Loot boxes can earn you big rewards in game – tools to help you progress, for example. But the prizes may also be of small value and this element of chance makes it a gamble.

This may not matter to most people, but in some it may start a desire-reward/loss-want cycle. Research in the UK showed that around one-fifth of gamblers were introduced to the behavior through loot boxes, after which other forms of gambling began to appear pleasurable.

As a recent article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology put it: “…increasing evidence suggests that young people, especially boys and men, are among those most vulnerable to gambling addiction – the demographic the same ones that most often participate in the newest form. gambling: sports betting and video game-based gambling”.

Addiction involves the need to do more and more of whatever it is you’re counting on to get the same beat. This happens because the brain seeks balance. So it does cushion the punch and it’s never as good as the first time around.

In most life activities this doesn’t matter – you continue the activity if you like it and you stop it if you don’t. But if you become addicted, then the desire triggered by the release of dopamine in your brain will keep you looking for that reward, even though when it arrives, it may be a disappointment.

You do not know it, but you are not after merit: you are after respite from desire. That’s why overcoming addiction can be a tough journey after you quit. The desire remains for a long time.

Gambling has an added lure. It has been noted in behavioral psychology that getting the same reward every time you do something loses its appeal. But getting enough rewards at enough times keeps you interested. That holds true whether you’re a lab rat pushing a lever for food pellets, a stock and stock gambler, or betting on your cell phone on who will win the next corner in a football game. You will win often enough to keep you hooked.

The danger of adolescent gambling is that the pre-frontal cortex, which helps regulate impulsive behavior, is still developing into the age of 25. That is, the earlier you start gambling, the more time you have to get hooked.

We need excellent education and care services. The availability of gambling via smartphones means that, nowadays, the genie is out of the bottle and a very long way to go. So grooming services shouldn’t be an afterthought or something that is paid for in pleasantries.

We often read of people defrauding their employers or others to fund their gambling addiction. Many of them are probably basically nice people who don’t have much fun; the level of addiction is depressing.

Hopefully, the Gambling Regulation Bill will become law by the end of the year and the Irish Gambling Regulatory Authority will have the resources it needs.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Counseling and Psychotherapy Association. Her books include Acceptance – make a change and move forward; daily attention reminders are available for free via email (

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