Although they may not be of legal age to enter a casino, youth may be already engaging in gambling behavior to some degree, even from a young age — whether that’s making a bet with a rare Pokémon card or playing a claw machine game to win a prize. Gambling at any age has risks associated with it and the potential to cause harm. Some video games have elements of betting or gambling, even in skill-based games. Loot boxes are an example which typically offer players a chance to win prizes ranging in value.
“It is important for youth to recognize what gambling in video games looks like so they can identify these behaviors and use harm reduction if they choose to participate,” says Sally Herod, Program Coordinator for the YMCA Youth Gambling Awareness Program (YGAP). YGAP provides education about emerging gambling opportunities and strategies to reduce gambling harms and setting healthy boundaries.
Loot boxes: A Gambling Component in Video Games
Loot boxes are virtual mystery boxes found in video games. Loot box unlocking is a chance-based activity in which users pay a fee to participate without knowing what they may find inside the box. The player can use their real money or in-game currency to unlock the box which will then reveal the items. Items in these boxes usually offer no real advantage to the player, but there are games in which the items in loot boxes can provide the player with a certain competitive advantage. The item inside the loot box may be of lesser, equal or greater value than what the loot box was purchased for. Skins is a term used to describe the decorative items usually found within loot boxes. Skins can range in value based on how rare they are, meaning some skins are potentially worth more than what was spent unlocking the loot box and some are worthless. Whenever a player opens a loot box, there is a chance that they will receive a valuable skin. The chances of winning a valuable skin are low and, for the most part, players receive a skin of a lesser value.
The Gamblification of Gaming: Common Challenges
While gaming and gambling are increasingly popular among youth, it is important to understand how to identify if these activities are becoming harmful. Structurally and psychologically, loot box unlocking included in popular games is very similar to gambling and youth are particularly vulnerable to the gambling mechanisms used in loot boxes. Earning loot boxes through gameplay can make the player play more often and for longer periods. Similar to loot box unlocking, someone who plays a slot machine may keep playing until they finally win, even if the money they win may be less than what they spent. People can also be carried away and spend more money than originally intended. It is important to keep in mind that although video games can be skill-based, this does not include loot boxes. Loot boxes have random outcomes and are chance-based.
A common scenario can be youth favoring gaming over helping with chores, completing homework, or even going to bed at a reasonable time. They may say that they can’t stop playing because their game isn’t at a “save point” yet or that they are so close to levelling up or getting a new high score. While these behaviors aren’t inherently problematic, it is important to make sure that there is balance between gaming and other activities to avoid problems later on.
Understanding Game Content and Ratings
“One thing we suggest to parents/guardians is to play the game with their kids to understand how the game and its ‘save point’,” says Herod. “Setting time limits on video game play, just like watching TV or being on social media apps, is also very important.”
By looking into video game content, parents and guardians will be better able to identify if the themes in the game are appropriate for their child and have discussions about more mature content such as gambling. A helpful way to quickly identify the appropriateness and content of a game is by looking at its Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating. ESRB provides concise and objective information about the content in video games and apps so consumers can make informed choices. The descriptors indicate content that may have triggered a particular rating and/or may be of interest or concern. This information is available online or can be accessed via ESRB’s their app, making it easy to find the information parents you need, quickly.
For example, a game rated by the ESRB as “T for Teen”—which is aimed at youth 13 and up —would have a content description indicating that this game may include violence, suggestive themes, blood and gore, mature humor, real gambling, simulated gambling, strong language, and alcohol or substance use. With that information, parents can then decide if this is an appropriate game to be purchased or rented.
The inclusion of real gambling in a game means that the player can gamble, wager or bet using real money. Simulated gambling means the player can participate in a gambling activity within the game without using real money.
ESRB also provides information about interactive elements in the game, which inform whether the game shares personal information (such as e-mail address and credit card information) with third parties, whether the user’s location is shared with other users, if in-app purchases of digital goods are completed and/or if unrestricted internet access (e.g., browsers, search engine) is provided.
Maintaining Balance and Encouraging Healthy Boundaries
“When it comes to setting healthy boundaries, establishing and maintaining a set of ‘house rules’ with clear expectations for youth, as well as allowing for their input can be a good strategy. It’s also important to have discussions about the risks of gaming and gambling and why setting screen time limits or money limits for in-game purchases are helpful,” says Kristie Matte, YGAP’s Youth Outreach Specialist.
In addition to using ESRB resources to find out which games allow real gambling, simulated gambling or in-app purchases — such as randomized loot crates — parents can also encourage harm reduction by balancing gaming or gambling with other hobbies, taking breaks, socializing through “real-world” interactions, prioritizing school and work, and promoting activity, nutrition, and a healthy sleep schedule.
Additional Supports and Helping Resources
There are also plenty of free support services and resources available. Game Quitters is a YouTube channel and community forum to help with video gaming problems. Kids Mental Health provides informational articles and guides, while the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) offers treatment services for problem gambling, gaming and internet use.
Visit YGAP’s website or contact a YGAP Youth Outreach Worker in your region if you would like to book a free workshop and learn more about the topic of gambling and gaming.