Are video games normalising gambling for young people?

The video game industry is one of the most profitable industries in the entire world coming in various forms. In the early days of video games, the games were simplistic and often two-dimensional such as the case with Pong and Computer Space – but these games entertained audiences across the world at the time. Most of the early consoles were big and bulky, but they provided a new form of entertainment that hadn’t ever existed before.

Fast-forward to the present day and video games are even more captivating with sleeker graphics, gripping gameplay and imaginative plots that rival even the greatest of movies. Accessibility to video games has improved dramatically with players having the option to play full games on their mobile phones and on the move with streaming services like Google Stadia.

One of the biggest criticisms in modern gaming has to be that an increasing amount of developers and publishers are releasing games that aren’t complete, ultimately meaning that players are having to purchase even more to have the full experience. This has led to further tactics such as loot boxes and pay to play games which have caused a huge stir within the community.

So, what’s wrong with these tactics? It’s simple – the uncertainty of what players are paying for is what makes people concerned. These people are essentially gambling to receive a specific product within the game – but there is no guarantee of which one they’ll receive. The act of gambling is known as ‘taking a risky action in the hope of a desired result’, and that certainly sounds familiar. Does this mean that video games are normalising gambling for young people? Let’s dive in and find out once and for all if they do.

Loot Boxes

So what exactly is a loot box? It’s essentially an item in a video game that can be bought with real cash and players take a gamble as to what they receive. Whilst, they know the whole collective of items they could gain, the final result is an utter gamble. Currently, there are no regulations for these loot boxes, meaning that it’s incredibly easy to purchase one.

Games like FIFA have an age rating of PEGI 3 in the UK which means that there is no inappropriate content for young players and that it’s suitable for players aged 13 and above. Despite this rating, the game still has loot boxes that these young players can access.

Legally, loot boxes aren’t currently classed as gambling or regulated as such – but this could all change by 2022. They are definitely linked to gambling as Wolverhampton and Plymouth University carried out research showing that loot boxes are “structurally and psychologically akin to gambling.”

The issue of loot boxes even sparked debates in UK Parliament as senior members demanded loot box regulation after the Safer Online Gambling Group found that young people spend in excess of £270m per year on video game add-ons. It’s expected that loot boxes will potentially be part of the Gambling Act 2005 Review that’ll be released on a white paper later this year.

Pay to Play

Similar to loot boxes, Pay to Play features an incomplete version of a video game that leads players to purchase additional items to have a playable game. In some cases, this model works with games like Apex Legends and Fortnite being free to play – but players are given the option to buy additional character skins or new levels to enhance their gameplay.

Pay to Play only really becomes an issue in relation to gambling, when they suddenly become Pay to Win. Just like with bonus buys in online slots, players essentially purchase the best bits of the game and skip out the actual gameplay to collect the rewards. Whilst, this necessarily isn’t gambling, it’s similar to mechanics that are featured in online slots.

Players are being encouraged to pay for the rewards, rather than earn them like they are supposed to in a video game. They are skipping out the whole point of playing video games, just to reap the rewards. It doesn’t normalise gambling – but it definitely doesn’t defer from it either.

Gambling in Video Games

Of course, the tactics mentioned above from developers can be damaging in normalising gambling, but arguably the worst influence has to be the direct iteration of gambling in video games. It’s normalised that gambling is acceptable for young people with it available in games such as New Super Marios Bros, The Sims 3, Final Fantasy VII and Stardew Valley just to name a few examples.

It’s expected in more adult-themed games such as Grand Theft Auto and Dead Rising, but gambling is alive and well in games rated for children and teenagers. There are a variety of table games in the New Super Marios Bros game with Picture Poker, Luigi-Jack and Memory Match as key examples.

Whilst, these games are entertaining to play and feature bonuses to improve the gameplay – but harmfully in normalising gambling. It can encourage addicting habits that lead children and vulnerable people into repeating these acts in real life.

There’s always been the argument that video games aren’t real, which is true, but video games can encourage people in the real world. If a young person enjoys visiting the casino in New Super Mario Bros, what’s going to stop them from repeating this habit in the real world and replicating what they do in the game. Young people are intelligent, but if video games aren’t promoting gambling as something with serious consequences, then they could go with the notion that there aren’t any consequences to it.

A Solution?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying gambling mechanics or mini-games involving gambling – if the player is of legal age and it’s regulated. The biggest problem with these video games normalising gambling is that tactics such as loot boxes or Pay to Play are not regulated and leave it open for anyone vulnerable or underage to be taken advantage of.

Countries like Australia are looking into introducing bills to ban the sale of loot boxes to minors which gives players over 18 the chance to gamble with these loot boxes, but minors would not have access to them. Ideally, this is how a video game can stop normalising gambling by highlighting that mechanics such as loot boxes and gambling mini-games are not suitable for young people under 18. Hopefully, the UK and other countries will follow suit to regulate these tactics to stop normalising gambling in video games – but only time will tell.