Loot boxes are a purchasable video-game feature consisting of randomly determined, in- game virtual items. Due to their chance-based nature, there is much debate as to whether they constitute a form of gambling. We sought to address this issue by examining whether players treat virtual loot box rewards in a way that parallels established reward reactivity for monetary rewards in slots play. Across two sets of experiments, we show that loot boxes containing rarer items are more valuable, arousing, rewarding and urge-inducing to players, similar to the way slots gamblers treat rare large wins in slots play. Importantly, we show in Experiment 2 that the duration of Post Reinforcement Pauses, an index of reward reactiv- ity, are longer for boxes with rarer items. Boxes containing rarer rewards also trigger larger Skin Conductance Responses and larger force responses—indices of positive arousal. Find- ings of Experiment 2 also revealed that there was an increase in anticipatory arousal prior to the reveal of loot box rewards. Collectively, our results elucidate the structural similari- ties between loot boxes and specific gambling games. The fact that players find rarer game items hedonically rewarding and motivating has implications for potential risky or exces- sive loot box use for some players.
Mike Dixon is a Full Professor of Psychology at the University of Waterloo where he has twice served as Chair of the Department. He is Director of the Research Stream at the Waterloo Gambling Research Laboratory. This lab is best known for their work on “losses disguised as wins” and “near-misses” two structural characteristics that underlie the allure of multiline and single line slot machines. They have recently published their research on scratch cards and games such as Candy-Crush. Dixon has been continuously funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council since 1997. His gambling research has been supported by the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, Gambling Research Exchange Ontario and the Manitoba Gambling Research Program. He has published over 100 articles in journals such as Addiction, Journal of Gambling Studies, International Gambling Studies, Nature, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuropsychology and Cortex.