Abertay University: InGAME evidence assessment looks at impact of loot boxes

An evidence assessment led by Abertay University that found loot boxes used by the video games industry have correlations with problem gambling has also uncovered a need for better research into the full range of impacts the sector has on its customers.

Commissioned by the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the evidence assessment team was tasked with considering harms in the industry and the impact of the loot box market.

It was carried out by the Dundee-based InGAME (Innovation for Games and Media Enterprise) centre, which is led by the city’s Abertay University in collaboration with the universities of Dundee and St Andrews.

A series of recommendations for the industry were included in the assessment report (see full list below) however the research team concluded that more work should be undertaken to better understand the wider effects of video games, both positive and negative, before any additional legislation should be considered.

Professor Gregor White, Dean of Abertay University’s School of Design and Informatics said: “The results of this evidence assessment may serve as a wake-up call to some and underline an urgent need for better research and evidence gathering across the board. Video games impact their users in an increasingly wide range of both positive and negative ways and while the continued growth of this hugely important UK industry is absolutely to be welcomed, we now need significant investment in research and development if we are to take our responsibilities to players and users seriously. Loot boxes are undoubtedly a worthy area of focus, but there’s a multitude of themes around monetisation approaches, child protection, analysis of harm risks, ethical games design, the promotion and sharing of good practice, and many other areas that require proper and fulsome investigation. Abertay and InGAME are already involved in initial conversations with the DCMS on creating a Video Games Research Framework to help address this challenge and we look forward to working closely with industry leaders and third sector partners as we continue the shared and collective drive to improve standards.”

Loot boxes are increasingly prevalent within digital games and are underpinned by a feature of games design known as ‘randomised reward mechanisms’ (RRMs) which have long been used by the industry to make games enjoyable and keep players engaged.

The relatively recent emergence of loot boxes, alongside new and evolving business models used in the industry, has led to concerns that they should be classed as a form of gambling.

During the 10-week InGAME evidence assessment, academics analysed more than 281 global research publications which included data on loot boxes and their place in the market.

The InGAME team explored whether loot boxes encourage problematic play behaviours, with particular focus on the key characteristics of the market nationally and internationally. Researchers also looked at how loot boxes are associated with harms and what the drivers of harm may be.

Abertay University academic Dr Darshana Jayemanne who led on the evidence assessment for InGAME said: “We are at the beginning of learning about potential harms and how they relate to particular implementations of loot boxes and although it is clear there are some correlations with problem gambling, more work is required to better understand these links. At this stage it is important to take a cautious approach to regulation of loot boxes, however it also does not mean that nothing can or should be done. We advocate an expanded approach to loot boxes that incorporates consumer protection frameworks. This would afford a range of tools, from recommendations or guidelines to binding statutes, that gives latitude for action. It will also help to ensure a measured approach to game developers of different sizes who make different kinds of games, different populations of players with different risks, and address potential concerns and risks that the narrow focus on gambling has perhaps sidelined, such as data protection. In our expert interviews, seasoned game developers suggested that such an approach would be valuable, helping them to create better online communities, manage risk, and work towards new designs.”

The evidence assessment outlined a set of principles that could be used for future work to inform ethical loot box design:

A minimum age informed by science, government and industry should be established for engaging in games involving loot boxes.
Games involving loot boxes should clearly and unambiguously inform players that loot boxes involving microtransactions are included in the game but are NOT an essential requirement for playing these games. Players may decline to use them without penalty.
It should be made clear at the point of purchase that loot box items do not guarantee a direct path to success in a game.
It should also be made clear the extent to which the delivery of loot box items is random in nature, and that loot boxes are prominently labelled with content ranges and % chances clearly displayed.
Loot box contents, or chances are not pre-determined or targeted based on player behaviour.
After a set number of purchases (e.g. after every fourth), players are informed via an on-screen message that this is their fourth, eighth, etc. purchase and that they should pause to consider how much they have spent at that point and if they wish to continue.
Players are informed via an on-screen message when sudden spikes in spending activity occur, encouraging them to pause to consider if they wish to continue.
Players should be advised to take regular breaks and that this message appears on screen after each hour (or appropriate session length) of play.
Developers and publishers should operate generous refund policies (e.g. all spend for the last X days), and players have a clear path to obtain this and to self-exclude.
Developers should allow access to a tally of recent spend in the user’s profile to allow players to make more informed decisions about their spending.
Players should be able to view estimated average spend amounts to level up or max out a character (or similar upgradable item), in order to make better value judgements and manage expectations.
Games companies should ensure that their likely first point of contact with players experiencing distress due to loot boxes or other spends are appropriately trained to offer support and informed as to possible methods for redress/refund. As the precise division of roles varies between studios, key personnel should be identified who can lead on this.
The InGAME evidence assessment has been considered as part of the UK Government’s response to an initial call for evidence in this area.