11 things you should know about loot boxes

19 Sep 2019 Becca Cawthorne

Parents and carers may have seen stories about ‘loot boxes’ in the news in the last few weeks. We’ve written this article to lay out all of the key information about loot boxes, what they mean for young people and their online safety, and what you can do to encourage safe and responsible usage.

What loot boxes are

Loot boxes are virtual items users can purchase in games with real money. In the box users will find a randomised selection of items that customise or alter the user’s experience of the game. The user will not receive any physical objects in the offline world as a result of these boxes.

The items in a loot box could be skins (that change the appearance of their character), new weapons or tools (that improve their characters ability), or access to new characters (e.g. a player for a FIFA team).

The kinds of games which feature loot boxes

Loot boxes are common in battle royale (last man standing) and first-person shooter games, such as Fortnite, Apex Legends, Overwatch, Star Wars Battlefront II, and others.

They can also be found in sports games, such as FIFA, Pro Evolution Soccer, Madden, and others.

How they compare to other in-game purchases

Loot boxes are not the only way to spend real life money in games. You may have also heard of microtransactions – these are purchases a user can make in the in-game shop to buy one specific item or service. The key difference between microtransactions and loot boxes is the absence of randomness.

In other in-game purchases, players get to choose exactly what they are buying, knowing its value and usefulness before purchasing. With loot boxes, players don’t know what is within them until they are purchased and their content can vary from low value items to ones which majorly change gameplay.

Why young people like loot boxes

Loot boxes are exciting! The randomness, the possibility of winning big, and the opportunity to upgrade or alter their experience of the game all make loot boxes appealing to young people.

What it looks like when loot boxes go wrong

In the news there have been reports of children racking up thousands of pounds in purchases within games. The BBC asked readers to share their stories of their children making in-game purchases, with one spending over £3,000.

What it looks like when loot boxes go right

Loot boxes can enhance a user’s experience of a game. Having new skins or weapons can make a player feel that their avatar is unique, making the game more enjoyable.

They can also help a player progress in the game by giving them higher-quality items.

How to ensure your kids are using loot boxes safely and responsibly

The first step is to have a conversation. Approach it with openness and good faith – not finger-pointing and distrust. Ask you children about the games they play, if these have loot boxes and discuss whether they have bought these themselves.

Make sure your child clearly understands that:

  • loot boxes cost real money, even if they are purchased with an in-game currency
  • they may be designed to encourage repeat-purchases
  • you expect them to respect any rules you set about money and responsibility

Both PlayStation and Microsoft allow you to set spending limits on accounts, so you can be sure that your child cannot spend large amounts in a single purchase or over a certain period of time.

What you should do if your child gets in trouble with loot boxes

Support and contact details for some of the major game publishers can be found below:

  • Blizzard – makers of Overwatch
  • Activision – makers of Call of Duty
  • Epic Games – makers of Fortnite
  • EA – makers of Star Wars Battlefront II, Apex Legends, and FIFA
  • Konami – makers of Pro Evolution Soccer
  • Nintendo – makers of Animal Crossing
  • Ubisoft – makers of Assassin’s Creed

What the research says

Research by the Gambling Commission revealed that 31% of 11-16-year olds had opened loot boxes in a computer game or in an app.

Research published by the Royal Society states that “it may be the case that loot box spending in adolescents causes problem gambling”.

A replication study found similar results, stating: “These results suggest either that loot boxes act as a gateway to problem gambling, or that individuals with gambling problems are drawn to spend more on loot boxes.”

However, research is limited, as loot boxes are a relatively new phenomenon.

What policy says

In September 2019, MPs called for loot boxes to be regulated under gambling law and ban their sale to children.

In April 2018, the Belgium Gaming Commission ruled that loot boxes are “in violation of gambling legislation” but, at the time of writing, loot boxes are not regulated or considered a form of gambling in the UK.

Where you can go for more information

Check out our compilation of gaming resources for parents and carers if you want to have a better understanding of gaming in general.

You may want to write up a Family Agreement about online safety.

If you are especially concerned about your child’s behaviour and how it might link to gambling, contact The National Gambling Helpline, operated by GamCare.

BBC Own It has a great resource on loot boxes that speaks clearly and effectively to young people.

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