Could ‘loot boxes’ in video games potentially be a stepping stone to a gambling addiction?

We need very good education and treatment services because, with the availability of gambling by smartphone, the genie is out of the bottle

My father used to talk about a farmer he had known who lost everything over a number of years to a gambling addiction - though nobody called it addiction at the time.

The farmer sold animals to pay his gambling debts. Gradually, all the animals were gone. Then he began selling fields and gradually all the fields were gone too.

It has stayed with me for a long time as an example of how a gambling addiction takes everything away.

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


Essentially, gambling includes putting money down for a possible reward with the outcome very dependent on chance.

When a person becomes dependent on that mix of experience - and most gamblers don’t become dependent, just as most drinkers are not alcoholics - then the attraction is transferable.

For instance, many observers argue that buying “loot boxes” in video games falls into this category. Loot boxes can give you a big reward in the game - tools to help you progress, for instance. But the reward might also be of little value and this element of chance makes it a gamble.

This probably doesn’t matter for most people but in some it might kick off a cycle of craving-reward/loss-craving. UK research suggests that about a fifth of gamblers are introduced to the behaviour by loot boxes, after which other forms of gambling begin to look like fun.

As a recent article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology puts it: “ … evidence is growing to suggest that young people, especially boys and men, are among those particularly vulnerable to gambling addiction - the same demographic most often participating in the newest forms of gambling: sports betting and video game-based gambling”.

Addictions involve the need to do more and more of whatever you are dependent on in order to get the same hit. This happens because the brain seeks equilibrium. So it dampens down the hit and it’s never as good as the first time.

In most of life’s activities this doesn’t matter - you continue with the activity if you like it and you drop it if you don’t. But if you become addicted then a craving, triggered by the release of dopamine in your brain, makes you keep looking for that reward even though when it arrives it may disappoint.

You don’t know it, but you’re not chasing the reward: you’re chasing a respite from the craving. That’s why overcoming addiction can be a tough journey after you’ve stopped. The craving stays around for, often, a long while.

Gambling has an extra lure. It’s been noted in behavioural psychology that getting the same reward every time you do something loses its charm. But getting enough of a reward just enough of the time keeps you interested. That applies whether you’re a laboratory rat pressing a lever for pellets of food, a gambler in stocks and shares, or making bets on your phone on who will win the next corner in a football match. You’ll win often enough to keep you hooked.

The danger in gambling by teenagers is that the pre-frontal cortex, which helps regulate impulsive behaviour, is still developing until the age of 25. That means that the earlier you start gambling, the more time you have to get hooked.

We need very good education and treatment services. The availability of gambling by smartphone means that, by now, the genie is out of the bottle and a long, long way down the road. So treatment services shouldn’t be an afterthought or something to which lip service is paid.

We often read of people defrauding employers or other people to fund gambling addictions. Many of these are probably fundamentally decent people who are not having fun; that level of addiction is miserable.

Hopefully, the Gambling Regulation Bill will be law by the end of the year and the Gambling Regulatory Authority of Ireland will get the resources it needs.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Acceptance - create change and move forward; his daily mindfulness reminder is available for free by email (