Addiction and gambling: the dark side of video games

Video games may be seen as a bit of harmless fun, but that could be about to change.

On Tuesday, gaming addiction was recognised as a mental health disorder by the World Health Organisation. The same day, new research showed that games with purchasable randomised rewards ('loot boxes') provoke similar psychological reactions to gambling.

The research by Kiwi and Australian researchers was published in Nature Human Behaviour, and raised the question of whether such game features should be regulated in the same way as gambling.

Almost half (45 percent) of the 22 games the researchers analysed met all five psychological criteria to be considered gambling. Those games were all rated by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) as appropriate for audiences 17 years old or younger.

The five established characteristics common to most gambling activities which were found to also be present in loot box games are:

  • The exchange of money or valuable goods
  • An unknown future event determines the exchange
  • Chance at least partly determines the outcome
  • Non-participation can avoid incurring losses
  • Winners gain at the sole expense of losers

Dr Aaron Drummond from Massey's School of Psychology says the issue is especially pertinent to New Zealanders because we have more game developers per capita than any other country in the world.

"Understanding the psychological risks of mechanics such as loot boxes is essential to ensuring that the New Zealand game industry remains at the forefront of ethical and sustainable video game development," he says.

The Belgium Gaming Commission and regulators in Australia and the United States are currently investigating whether loot boxes constitute a type of gambling. There's been no consensus yet on whether simulated forms of gambling can be called an illegal gambling operation.

James Driver, a psychotherapist and former gaming addict, developed the website Net Addiction in 2013 due to a lack of resources about the issue in New Zealand.

He says the recognition of gaming addiction as a disorder probably won't change much in New Zealand, although it will doubtless have an impact in terms of health insurance policies overseas.

"It could possibly help people take the issue more seriously, but in general public opinion isn't all that affected by medical diagnoses."

He says the government should "definitely" develop some kind of targeted programme to help Kiwis struggling with gaming addiction.

"It would be very helpful to have some official guidelines and resources for people."

Netsafe's director of technology Sean Lyons says given the popularity of online gaming in New Zealand, people need to be careful of slipping into unhealthy habits.

"It's important that people are conscious that they are gaming in a way that provides enjoyment and entertainment, but that isn't negatively impacting other areas of their lives."

However Michael Vermeulen, chairman of the NZ Game Developers Association, says the classification of gaming addiction as a mental health disorder is "unsettling".

"[WHO] has been considering it since the start of the year, and they've had lots of feedback that their approach isn't the best, the research was inconclusive," he says.

"They're jumping the ball without considering the actual underlying issues - it's the wrong call."

He says most gaming 'addiction' is simply a coping mechanism for depression or anxiety, and that the WHO's decision will "stigmatise" gamers and the industry.

"New Zealand is a great country for game development. We've got 600 developers creating diverse games of a high quality and doing well on the global stage.

"I'd hate to see it undermined by a quick decision."

He says many games can have positive effects on mental health, from educating gamers about different topics to helping those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.

When it comes to loot boxes, Mr Driver says it's "absolutely appropriate" to consider creating legislation around game content that verges on gambling, especially when it involves people spending large amounts of money.

"There's absolutely no regulation around it at the moment, and obviously business will do whatever they can to maximise profits."

Mr Lyons says any potential negative ramifications of loot boxes need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

"The potential effects of the inclusion of purchasable randomised rewards in games is dependent on how the rewards are set up in a specific game, and if the mechanisms for accessing the reward could be harmful to players then we believe developers should revisit their inclusion."

But Mr Vermeulen says if loot boxes are gambling, then so are trading cards and marbles.

"It's an overreaction, just a way of scapegoating games."

As for young people being more susceptible to the psychological allure of gambling, he says parents need to take some responsibility.

"We encourage people to educate their kids and keep an eye on them. Don't let your child loose with your credit card."

The Ministry of Health told Newshub it's aware of the WHO's new classification of gaming addiction, and that it will consider it ahead of its presentation at the World Health Assembly in May 2019.