Gambling psychology researchers at the University of Adelaide have found that in-game purchasing systems in popular online games resemble gambling.
The researchers examined a range of popular online games that include the option of paying small fees - or "microtransactions" - to access additional features or content that enhance the player's experience and found that they could pose financial risks for vulnerable players.
Published in the journal Addiction, the study found that some online games enable endless spending behaviours and employ systems that disguise or withhold the long-term cost of these microtransactions. And what's worse is that the true financial cost of such games may not be obvious until the player is financially or psychologically committed and then finds it more difficult to stop.
Players hoping to win a particular item may end up repeatedly buying loot boxes at significant personal expense
"These schemes may entice some players to spend more money than they may have intended or can afford, especially when using credit cards or virtual currency that makes it hard to keep track of spending," said Dr Daniel King, Senior Research Associate in the University of Adelaide's School of Psychology.
Working with fellow author Professor Paul Delfabbro on the study, the pair focused on a purchasing scheme called the "loot box", an in-game reward system in which players can repeatedly buy a random selection of virtual items.
The researchers found this loot box feature a particular interesting one to focus on as it has recently been the subject of regulatory attention across many jurisdictions. For example the Belgian Gambling Commission announced in April that loot boxes were an illegal form of gambling.
The researchers call loot boxes and similar schemes 'predatory monetisation' because they encourage repeated spending
"Players hoping to win a particular item may end up repeatedly buying loot boxes at significant personal expense," added King. "Because loot boxes require no player skill and have a randomly determined outcome or prize, they function similarly to scratch tickets or gambling slot machines."
The researchers call loot boxes and similar schemes 'predatory monetisation' because they encourage repeated spending using tactics that may involve "limited disclosure of the product, unavoidable solicitations, and manipulation of reward outcomes", which apparently will all encourage purchasing behaviours.
They liken some of these schemes to a form of psychological 'entrapment' where players spend an escalating amount of money because they believe they have invested too much to quit.
Delfabbro added: "There are few regulations or consumer protections associated with these systems [and] I think most experienced gamers will agree: gaming should really be about skilful play, not gambling."
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