Country’s top mental health nurse warns video games pushing young people into ‘under the radar’ gambling

NHS mental health director Claire Murdoch has today called on gaming companies to crack down on gambling addiction risks by banning loot boxes from their products.

Ms Murdoch has warned video game firms that they risk “setting kids up for addiction” by building gambling tasks into their games.

In response to growing concerns about addiction to gaming, the NHS has confirmed the opening of a new treatment centre, alongside up to 14 new NHS gambling clinics nationwide, to address significant mental ill health linked to addiction.

The investment is part of the NHS Long Term Plan to improve mental health, backed by at least £2.3 billion extra funding within the next five years, helping hundreds of thousands more children and adults to get timely, expert care.

NHS mental health director Claire Murdoch said: “Frankly no company should be setting kids up for addiction by teaching them to gamble on the content of these loot boxes. No firm should sell to children loot box games with this element of chance, so yes those sales should end.

“Young people’s health is at stake, and although the NHS is stepping up with these new, innovative services available to families through our Long Term Plan, we cannot do this alone, so other parts of society must do what they can to limit risks and safeguard children’s wellbeing.”

Concerns have been raised about children playing video games which involve spending significant amounts of money – often without parents’ knowledge or consent – on so-called ‘loot boxes’, which are virtual collections of in-game purchases and other add-ons.

To progress in the game, players can collect extra items and content, but do not know what items they will be given until they’ve paid – which encourages users to keep spending and playing.

Investigations have found numerous cases of children spending money without their parents’ knowledge, including a 16-year-old paying £2,000 on a basketball game and a 15-year-old losing £1,000 in a shooting game.

A report by the Royal Society of Public Health in December found that over half of young people believe that playing a video game could lead to gambling and that the link between gaming and gambling is a negative one.

Ms Murdoch has called on gaming companies to:

  • Ban sales of games with loot boxes that encourage children to gamble
  • Introduce fair and realistic spending limits to prevent people from spending thousands in games
  • Make clear to users what percentage chance they have of obtaining the items they want before they purchase loot boxes
  • Support parents by increasing their awareness on the risks of in-game spending

Latest figures from the Gambling Commission show 55,000 children are classed as having a gambling problem and the NHS estimates there are around 400,000 people with a serious gambling problem in England.

Recent data shows that more than half of UK parents allow their children to play video games intended for people aged 18 or over, without supervision or having played the game themselves.

86% of parents believed playing games aimed at people aged 18 or over would have no influence on their children but 62% of parents ended up trying to take games back from their kids after they noticed a problem.

Once referred to one of the new NHS specialist clinics, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists will work with patients who could have a range of complex problems including persistent gambling, compulsive behaviours, development disorders and difficulties earlier in childhood that underlie addiction.

The Gambling Commission does not regulate some loot boxes due to a loophole meaning it is not classed as gambling. Under current gambling legislation, this is because there is no official way to monetise what is inside of loot boxes.

Despite this, third party websites selling gaming accounts and rare items are commonplace and easy to find on places such as eBay across the internet.

One game even launched a virtual casino which lets players invest real money to gamble on games such as blackjack and poker.

Players are unable to convert any winnings from the casino back into real money, creating a cycle of gambling hard cash in a virtual world.

A recent parliamentary report called for loot boxes to be regulated under gambling law, along with a ban on loot boxes being sold to children.

The report also called for:

  • The gaming industry to face up to responsibilities to protect players from potential harms
  • An industry levy to support independent research on long-term effects of gaming
  • Serious concern at the lack of an effective system to keep children off age-restricted platforms and games

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, psychiatrist and founder of CNWL’s National Problem Gambling Clinic said: “As the Director of the National Centre for Gaming Disorders, the first NHS clinic to treat gaming addiction, I am fully in favour of taking a public health approach and bringing in a regulatory body to oversee the gaming industry products currently causing great concerns to parents and professionals. Loot boxes are only one of several features that will need to be investigated and indeed researched. We need an evidence-based approach to ensure our young people and gamers in general do not continue to be subjected to new and increasingly harmful  products without our intervention.