Gambling psychology researchers have reviewed in-game purchasing systems, such as ‘loot boxes’, in popular online games.

The researchers examined a range of popular online games that include the option of paying small fees (‘microtransactions’) to access additional features or content that enhance the player’s experience.

Some online games enable endless spending and employ systems that disguise or withhold the long-term cost of these microtransactions.

The experts labelled the schemes ‘predatory monetisation’ because they encourage repeated spending using tactics that may involve limited disclosure of the product, unavoidable solicitations, and manipulation of reward outcomes to encourage purchasing behaviours over skilful play.

They liken some of these schemes to a form of psychological ‘entrapment’ where players spend an escalating amount of money because they believe they have invested too much to quit. There are also sometimes pressuring tactics, incentivising purchases such as so-called ‘limited time’ offers.

“These schemes may entice some players to spend more money than they may have intended or can afford, especially when using credit cards or virtual currency that makes it hard to keep track of spending,” says Dr Daniel King, Senior Research Associate in the University of Adelaide’s School of Psychology.

He and fellow author Professor Paul Delfabbro, also from the School of Psychology, focused on a purchasing scheme called the ‘loot box’, an in-game reward system in which players can repeatedly buy a random selection of virtual items.

The loot box feature has recently been the subject of regulatory attention across many jurisdictions, with the Belgian Gambling Commission announcing in April this year that loot boxes were an illegal form of gambling.

“Players hoping to win a particular item may end up repeatedly buying loot boxes at significant personal expense,” Dr King says. 

“Because loot boxes require no player skill and have a randomly determined outcome or prize, they function similarly to scratch tickets or gambling slot machines.”

Their findings follow the World Health Organization’s announcement last week that it plans for the first time to include ‘gaming disorder’ in its diagnostic manual, the International Classification of Diseases.

The authors hope that drawing further attention to these new financial aspects in games may contribute to continuing debates on the nature and extent of gaming-related harms.