Internet Gaming Disorder and The Psychology of Loot Boxes

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In case you haven’t heard, Internet Gaming Disorder is now a thing. It’s the idea that people can become addicted to online games. It’s not a “true” disorder yet — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka the DSM, which psychiatrists use to determine what is and is not currently considered aberrant behavior, has decided to list it as a possible disorder in need of further study.

In order to determine if a person has Internet Gaming Disorder, psychiatrists would look for them to meet five of the following nine conditions within a year. Let’s go through them and see which ones I might have. You know, just for fun.

  • Preoccupation or obsession with Internet games.
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not playing Internet games.
  • A build-up of tolerance–more time needs to be spent playing the games.
  • The person has tried to stop or curb playing Internet games, but has failed to do so.
  • The person has had a loss of interest in other life activities, such as hobbies.
  • A person has had continued overuse of Internet games even with the knowledge of how much they impact a person’s life.
  • The person lied to others about his or her Internet game usage.
  • The person uses Internet games to relieve anxiety or guilt–it’s a way to escape.
  • The person has lost or put at risk and opportunity or relationship because of Internet games.  

I’d say I qualify for maybe four and a half of those. So I’m fine. Whew!

Obviously, there’s debate over whether this should actually be considered a problem, with many gamers upset that the experts are pathologizing otherwise normal behavior. And I sympathize with that viewpoint, since as far as I know there’s no Television Disorder, but I know plenty of people who are preoccupied with TV shows, who get itchy if they can’t watch Game of Thrones when it airs, who increase the amount of time they watch, who try to stop binging Netflix shows but can’t, who watch TV instead of engaging in other hobbies, and who use TV as an escape from their problems.

But hey, if enough people’s lives are being negatively affected by this one thing, then yeah, maybe psychiatrists should look into it with a bit more depth. And that’s one of the nice things about defining a problem like this — it tells scientists that this is a serious topic worthy of more research.

A good example has already popped up in the form of an editorial in the journal Addiction, where researchers at the University of Adelaide bring up a topic that’s fascinating and definitely worth looking into: lootboxes.

As many of you may already know, I have a Twitch channel where I play video games every weekday — usually Overwatch, a first person shooter that uses a lootbox system. Lootboxes are just what they sound like: little packages of joy that contain items that you can use in the game you’re playing. They’re random, so you never know what you’re going to get in one. Depending on the game, you could get a very common voiceline, say, or an ultra-rare weapon that might help you win the game.

It’s the randomness that is the genius of lootboxes. You can’t just buy the skin you want — you have to buy 20, 50, 100 lootboxes and open them all hoping to get what you want. If you don’t, too bad. Buy more lootboxes.

Some games give you things in lootboxes that can actually help you win the game, which makes buying them a necessity if you want to compete with other players. Overwatch only gives out cosmetic items, and because of that I’ve always supported their system. You don’t need to buy lootboxes to win, and you can earn them by playing the game, so you never need to spend any money at all. But that’s how Blizzard, the company that makes Overwatch, can continue to make enough money so that they can keep giving us new characters, maps, and game modes for free.

That said, the researchers studying the psychology of lootboxes make me wonder if even Overwatch’s system is predatory. They’re starting to change my mind, even though I love lootboxes, in part because I love gambling. The researchers point out that lootboxes, even ones you don’t need to win the game, are a form of gambling that satisfy the same psychological triggers as scratch tickets and slot machines. But unlike scratch tickets and slot machines, lootbox sales are legally allowed to target little kids who play the game. Not only might these little kids get access to a parent’s credit card and cause havoc, but they might be getting introduced to a gambling addiction early on.

I say all this while being, well, a person who got into gambling as a little kid. I used to run a little casino for my friends, complete with a roulette wheel (that I won playing a token-only slot machine at an amusement park) and blackjack. When I got a little older, I taught all my friends in high school how to play poker and we had a Sunday night poker meetup. Now I’m a (fairly) normal person, but I’m definitely prone to addictions. I’ve put in hundreds (or maybe thousands?) of hours into Overwatch, thousands of hours into Civilization, and I literally wrote the script for this video while taking breaks to catch Pokemon. The only reason I don’t have a diagnosable problem is because I’ve made games a part of my livelihood and I have a very understanding boyfriend.

There are other problems with lootboxes that even adults should be aware of. The researchers point out that many of these games collect data on the user and then use that to manipulate loot drop rates in order to maximize the amount of money they think they can make you spend. That’s pretty impressive from a psychological and programming perspective, but from a morality perspective, it’s downright sleazy.

I’m interested in this editorial and in the direction other researchers might be able to take their study of these manipulative systems. Their research could even inform public policy, since some countries are beginning to enact laws about lootboxes, like China where game publishers have to tell you lootbox odds, and Belgium has outlawed lootboxes altogether.

So I guess I’m being more and more convinced that even cosmetic-only lootboxes may be unethical. But hey, I have a slight gaming obsession so I’m going to keep grinding out that Overwatch loot. Also I get to kill people to get it, so it’s basically an addiction that’s tailor-made for me. Yeah, I might have a problem.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I wouldn’t call loot boxes a disorder, any more than any other form of gambling. (Though of course, you can be addicted at least psychologically to anything.) Richard Garfield takes issue with them, though. (Write your own punchline here.)

  2. Loot boxes are pretty clearly designed to get people to pay more money. It’s the intermittent reinforcement method.

  3. Has anybody checked out VR Chat?

    Talk about total immersion, people can leave the real world behind for good!

    When they get in their $3000 gear and sit around in the virtual world watching vids….but who am I to judge, the real world is ultra shitty for lots of people!

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