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In-app purchases accused of predatory gambling techniques by Australian study

A new study from psychology researchers at the University of Adelaide has lambasted in-game purchases, particularly loot boxes, due to their resemblance to gambling. Dubbing the techniques deployed as “predatory,” it’s possible that this conclusion could factor into the rest of Australia’s investigation into the practice.

While microtransactions in general were the brunt of the university study, published to Addiction, researchers found that loot boxes in particular posed long-term financial risk to vulnerable players. The purchases are designed in such a way that “disguise or withhold the long‐term cost of the activity until players are already financially and psychologically committed.”

“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,” said Dr Daniel King, Senior Research Associate in the University of Adelaide's School of Psychology.

The randomised nature of loot boxes are what keep players coming back, continuously spending in the hopes that they will get the item they’ve set their sights on. Since “loot boxes require no player skill and have a randomly determined outcome or prize, they function similarly to scratch tickets or gambling slot machines,” continues King.

The sale of loot boxes is often accompanied by “predatory monetisation,” in which the system might exploit its knowledge of the player to adjust the prices of virtual items depending on their spending habits. The study also makes note of “pressuring tactics,” such as limited time offers to push people into spending more money than they can afford.

According to King, these tactics can result in psychological ‘entrapment’, causing the player to spend an “escalating amount” of “irretrievable” funds in the hopes of increasing the likelihood of the desired outcome, with the cycle often ending in debt.

Professor Paul Delfabbr explains that “there are few regulations or consumer protections associated with these systems [and] I think most experienced gamers will agree: gaming should really be about skilful play, not gambling.” The main concern isn’t simply protecting the vulnerable, but the impressionable younger players that “may be particularly less equipped to critically appraise the value proposition of these schemes,” resisting their temptation.

It is currently unknown as to whether this will impact on Australia’s investigation into loot boxes, however the University of Adelaide seem to be in favour of the stricter approach taken by the Netherlands, that has recently forced developers to change their stance on loot boxes or risk legal action.

KitGuru Says: Some would argue that loot boxes are relatively similar to booster packs within a physical card game, such as Magic: The Gathering or Pokémon, however there’s an argument to be made that these are similarly guilty of predatory tactics. What do you think about loot boxes? Are they predatory and reminiscent of gambling or just a harmless way to make more money?

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