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Can Playing Video Games Lead to a Gambling Problem?

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It is known that video games can be addicting, but some studies are now suggesting that gaming can even be a gateway into gambling. The vast majority of American children and adolescents play video games, with the average child and adolescent playing between 13 and 14 hours of video games per week. Video games also play a large role in the lives of young adults, with 38% of US gamers aged between 18 and 34. 


What are the risks of gaming, and how can you protect your child from developing an unhealthy relationship with gaming that could turn into gambling? 

Similarities Between Games and Gambling

Just like gambling, gaming can be purely an entertaining activity that many people can engage in without ever developing a problem. Gaming has positive aspects, such as providing social interaction and a way to connect with others from all over the world. However, games are designed to encourage compulsive use, just as online gambling is designed to be addictive. 


When playing video games, your brain releases a constant dopamine supply, with occasional random bursts. Over time, your brain builds up a tolerance and requires even more dopamine release for gaming to feel fun. This can result in other activities seeming dull or boring in comparison to a stimulating video game. 


Both gaming and gambling are very accessible and can be played on smartphones, but the strongest connection that gaming has to gambling is paying money for the potential of earning a reward or more money, which is done through buying loot boxes. 



The Lure of Loot Boxes

A loot box is a reward you can win or buy in a video game. The contents of the box are completely random and the outcome is always based on luck. You might earn special equipment or coins, but there is nothing you can do to ensure you win what you really want. However, in some games, players are able to trade the rewards they get from loot boxes with each other for real money. 


The luck involved in loot boxes, as well as the unlikelihood of winning anything great is very similar to that of slot machines. You are guaranteed to get something on every spin, but the outcome is rarely what you hope for. Some loot boxes even show “near misses” which is very reminiscent of casino games.  


There is much debate over whether or not loot boxes should be put in the same category as gambling, but the  The NSW Youth Gambling Study found that young people who bought loot boxes and played video games with gambling components are more likely to gamble. 


Some countries, including Belgium have deemed loot boxes to be gambling products, causing some companies to pull their games from the market. Some countries may be looking to follow suit, but the trend of loot boxes does not seem to be slowing down. A recent forecast predicted that gamers will be spending about $50 billion annually on loot boxes within the next two years.


So why do gamers feel the need to purchase loot boxes? Players can become addicted to the mere action of buying a loot box. The uncertainty and the thrill that comes with buying a loot box is enough to keep gamers purchasing them. In some cases, gamers feel as though they have to buy loot boxes in order to progress in their game, and gain access to new tools and levels which will help them keep up with their friends in the game. 


Signs of a Gaming Disorder

The signs of a gaming disorder are very similar to the signs of a gambling disorder, although gaming does not necessarily involve a preoccupation with money in the way that gambling does. 


Playing video games can “take the edge off” of a hard day in a similar way that one would unwind with a beer or glass of wine. Both adults and children can look to gaming as a mindless activity that can help reduce their stress. Here are some warning signs to look out for in your child, teen, or adult child:


  • Thinking about games when not playing
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Irritable, moody, bored, or frustrated when not playing
  • Consistently putting gaming before other responsibilities
  • Inability to reduce amount of time spent playing
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Lying about the amount of time spent on gaming
  • Gaming as an escape or coping mechanism


How to Protect Your Child From Gaming Disorder

Children and teens’ brain structure and function are less developed and are linked to increased impulsivity, making them more prone to developing a problematic relationship with gaming. Here are a few things you can do as a parent to help prevent your child from developing a gaming or gambling disorder. 

  • Monitor your own gaming and gambling habits. Parents are often the strongest influence on youth gambling. Be mindful of the types of activities you are exposing your children to, including playing games with loot boxes, engaging in sports betting or purchasing lottery tickets.
  • Understand the types of games your kids play. 67% of parents play video games with their children at least once a week. This can help you determine which games are safe, and which ones you need to monitor more closely, or prohibit.
  • Set daily time limits. Gaming should be a privilege rather than a right or a need. Setting time limits gives your children time to find other activities to occupy themselves with.
  • Disable in-app purchases or set up passwords for in-app purchases to prevent your child from purchasing loot boxes.
  • Explain to your child the dangers of loot boxes. Your child should be made aware of the serious effects that gaming can have on them, especially in regards to loot boxes.
  • Understand why they want to play video games. Is it to have fun with their friends, or just a way to pass the time? Or is there a deeper root issue that needs to be addressed? If your child is a teen or a young adult, you can have a serious conversation about their gaming habits, and help them get the help that they need for any underlying mental health concerns. 

Ultimately, everything in moderation is key, and developing a problematic relationship with video gaming usually only results from excessive use.


If you are concerned that you or your adult child is developing a gaming or gambling problem, our experienced gambling counselors are here for you. We treat adults of all ages with all types of gambling disorders, and the root causes of compulsive behavior. Reach out to our gambling counselors to receive guidance on the next steps to take.