Video games contain in-game gambling simulations and can cause gambling addiction in adults

A study led by the University of York identified video game gambling simulations as a precursor to problem gambling and video gaming disorder in adults.

The video gaming industry has, in the past decade, integrated and embraced digital gambling practices that either enhance video gaming experiences or provide a competitive benefits over other players. Similar to the roll of a dice or the pulling of a slot-machine lever, gambling practices within video games randomise content for an opportunity to win desirable virtual items.

In-game digital gambling practices include the purchase of loot boxes, token wagering systems, and simulated social casino spendings. All of these have served as a clear precursor within adult and young adult demographics to developing problem gambling and, in turn, video gaming disorder.

Previous studies have highlighted the correlation between gambling disorders and in-game digital gambling practices, reporting that video game gambling practices are “structurally and psychologically akin” to real-life gambling situation. Other studies have found that the purchase of loot boxes (a virtual item that is won in-game and contains lucrative virtual items such as armour or weaponry) “exerted significant and positive direct effects on video gaming frequency, problem video gaming, and gambling frequency.” 

In a UK-based research study, Dr David Zendle from the University of York investigated the exact link between all three variables, as well as measuring prevalence rates in adult populations. The primary motivation behind the study was the examination of the convergence between video game gambling practices which, as described by Dr Zendle, “are linked to problem gambling, and all seem prevalent.” 

The study aimed to address two key questions: do in-game digital gambling practices serve as a link to video gaming and gambling disorders? If so, what are the estimated prevalence rates demonstrated in adult populations?

To address both questions, Dr Zendle designed a quantitative, observational study that sampled 1,081 adult participants from the UK. The participants were instructed to complete an 8-point scale online survey. Their responses were anchored by specific terms of duration on how frequently gambling behaviours were practised or when they were last performed.

The survey connected the link between in-game gambling systems to video gaming disorder and problem gambling. It also measured participants’ engagement frequency in both traditional gambling and video game gambling (e.g., the purchase of randomised loot boxes). Participant responses were then collected and the “aggregate measures of both engagement in any traditional form of gambling and engagement in any form of video game and gambling-related activity” were calculated, Dr Zendle said. 

The study revealed three key findings.

The first significant finding was the alarmingly widespread practice of video game gambling and gambling-like behaviours in the study participants. 18.5% of study participants engaged in social casino games or the purchase of loot boxes. This result provides an accurate estimate to the overall UK adult population who engage in gambling behaviours or in-game gambling practices. 

The second key finding was a striking similarity between video game gambling practices and traditional gambling practices. For instance, 7.5% of the participants purchased in-game loot boxes, while 7.4% of the participants reported playing traditional casino games. This implies that an overlap exists among traditional gambling behaviours and video game gambling practices. This finding could lead to the legislative regulation of in-game gambling simulations within video games.

The third findings was a significant link between video game gambling practices and the development of problem gambling. This finding applies to both the in-game gambling practices from this study (such as loot boxes), as well as those from outside the study, such as token wagering systems, social casino simulations, and even watching video game gambling services live.

The observed correlation between video game gambling practices and disordered gaming highlighted that video game gambling practices are, in some part, a precursor to developing video gaming disorder or gambling disorder.

While the findings of the research were sampled from a UK adult population, the implications can be applied to any population with a large percentage of adults who engage in video game gambling. 

Of course, the major difference within the video gaming industry is that, as opposed to traditional gambling systems, the earnings from in-game gambling practices can not be converted to real-life currency.

As such, regulators should acknowledge the severe effects that video game gambling practices have on the development of problem gambling and video gaming disorder. Arguments have been made that video game gambling systems should undergo the same regulatory standards as online US gambling laws.


Zendle, D. (2020). Beyond loot boxes: A variety of gambling-like practices in video games are linked to both problem gambling and disordered gaming. PeerJ, 8. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.9466

Zaid Elayyan

Zaid Elayyan is a Neuroscience and Pre-Medical Studies graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, concentrating in Cognitive Behavioral Neuroscience, Evolutionary Neuroscience and Science Writing. Throughout his academic career, Zaid served as a Research Assistant within the Neuroscience Department, performed course-based Evolutionary Neuroscience research for the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, shadowed Emergency Department physicians at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, and was involved in a multitude of on-campus Neuroscience societies as a science writer. He is a CITI certified Social and Behavioral Neuroscience researcher and is accredited with Excellent Leadership by the National Society of Leadership and Success. Zaid is an active Science Writer with Breakthrough, and is in pursuit of his Master's Degree.

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