Between Gaming and Gambling: investigating children and young people’s experiences and understandings of gambling style systems in digital games

ESRC standard grant. 2019-2021.

PI: Dr James Ash (Newcastle University). Co-I: Dr Sarah Mills (Loughborough University) £351,903.

The digital games industry (broadly encompassing mobile, PC and console games) is increasingly adopting gambling style systems in their games in order to increase revenue. These gambling style systems take many forms, but primarily work to encourage players to unlock digital content in games that can only be accessed through systems of chance, which are purchased with real currency. 

As Griffiths and King (2015) argue, there is a number of similarities between the techniques and mechanisms involved in the design of gambling style systems such as loot boxes in digital games and regulated gambling. For instance, both are designed to exploit desires for ‘one more go’ and the hope that the next box will have the item the player is looking for, thus making up for previous ‘failed’ purchases, where no desired or valuable item was present (Schull 2012). But, unlike gambling, which is a highly regulated activity in the UK and limited to people over the age of 18, gambling style systems in digital games are unregulated and regularly targeted at children and young people under 18. 

Focusing on children’s experiences and practices and also engaging families and games designers, the project seeks to understand how young people actually use, make sense of and respond to gambling style systems in digital games in their everyday lives. Moving beyond purely legal or formal analyses of these systems, the project addresses the key societal question of whether these systems encourage gambling like behaviour and if they do then how can these systems and services be regulated? In doing so, the project will produce evidence to inform regulatory debate and influence public policy around gambling systems in digital games and changing definitions of digital gambling more broadly. 

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