Skip to Main Content

Lifting the lid on gaming

Photo of a smiling teenage boy with short dark hair wearing a blue T-shirt and head phones around his neck, sitting at a desk on which there are two computer screens, one with a video game displayed.

Daniel, photo: Paul Jeffers

by Lisa Clausen

A series of animated videos released this week aims to alert parents, particularly in culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, to the growing presence of gambling-like products in all-ages computer games.

Created by Diversitat (also known as the Geelong Ethnic Communities Council) with funding from the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, the videos explain in six languages the workings and risks of in-game purchases.

Project lead Julie Barrow, who’s also a financial counsellor at Diversitat, says the videos focus on loot boxes – virtual treasure chests that players pay real money to open. Inside are randomised prizes called ‘skins’ – virtual items, such as gear or weapons upgrades, designed to make a player’s online character appear cooler or more intimidating. Despite the allure, the contents of loot boxes are often far less valuable than the real-money price paid to access them.

Promises of hidden treasure

Daniel was one of several young people involved in the making of the videos through a schools-based media studies traineeship at Diversitat. A self-described ‘heavy gamer’, in-between homework, a part-time job and band practice, the 16-year-old spends at least three hours every day gaming. Loot boxes, or crates, he says, are ‘definitely involved in nearly every game these days’.

After helping record audio for the videos, as well as voicing some of the narration, Daniel says he’s had his eyes opened to the similarities between gambling and the loot boxes he and his friends are repeatedly offered. He doesn’t always resist. ‘Every now and then you test your luck a bit,’ he says. Recently, he had a rare win – spending three dollars on a loot crate and winning a skin worth $20 on the online resale market. He and his friends have noticed the ‘rush’ that comes from winning. ‘It’s like a drug – you get one win, you feel lucky.’

‘We need to raise awareness among parents that there can be purchases in games and that they can have similarities to gambling.’ - Diversitat financial counsellor Julie Barrow

Daniel says few of his friends’ parents would understand the temptations on offer for young gamers. Similarly, none of the parents Julie spoke to while making the videos knew anything about items of chance. ‘There was no awareness at all,’ she says, ‘and that’s really concerning.’ She found that parents often assume their child is asking for credit card purchases of new games, oblivious to the fact they may be funding gambling-type activities.

‘We’re not saying that kids shouldn’t play computer games or that they’re dangerous,’ Julie says. ‘But we need to raise awareness among parents that there can be purchases in games and that they can have similarities to gambling.’

The convergence of gaming and gambling

The potential for children who’ve been exposed to simulated gambling to graduate to other gambling activities as adults is also worrying gambling harm experts. Before making the videos, Diversitat surveyed 450 gamers online to gauge attitudes about loot boxes and skins. The survey found that 40 per cent of gamers spent more than they intended on in-game purchases, while 82 per cent believed there is a link between loot boxes and gambling. Many of those surveyed reported their regret at spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on the boxes.

Because it happens online, Daniel suspects that gambling-type behaviour among gamers is much easier to miss than if they were spending hours in a pub or a casino. Young people paying money in small increments in a virtual world also struggle, he says, to appreciate the extent of their losses until they’re significant. As online games become more monetised, he believes they should carry a clear ‘in-app purchase’ content warning, similar to warnings about sexual content or violence.

‘It’s like a drug – you get one win, you feel lucky.’ - Daniel

In Belgium and the Netherlands, loot boxes are regulated as a form of gambling. But a senate committee inquiry in Australia last year rejected calls for greater consumer protection here, despite evidence from the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation and other experts about similarities to gambling and the associated risks to players, particularly those aged under 18.

To help tackle those risks, Julie hopes the videos will be widely shared. The Foundation’s CEO Shane Lucas agrees, warning that the line between gambling and gaming is becoming increasingly blurred. ‘These videos will help equip parents and others involved in the lives of young people, such as teachers and youth workers, to support children to navigate the gaming world in a positive way,’ he says.

New conversations

The project, says Julie, has transformed her own approach as a parent. She’s discussed the signs and risks of simulated gambling with her teenage son, and he now talks to her before buying a loot box. ‘It’s really opened up that conversation for us,’ she says.

Daniel agrees that the videos have changed his gaming, too. ‘I’m much more aware now of what I’m doing,’ he says. ‘I don’t just spin the wheel anymore.’

View the videos in:

Diversitat was one of 12 organisations to receive Foundation funding in 2018 to deliver a year-long prevention project specifically for CALD communities. These projects aimed to raise awareness within CALD communities about the risks associated with gambling, promote help-seeking and provide alternative recreational activities as a means to prevent or reduce gambling harm. Find out more about the prevention projects for CALD communities.