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Real money, virtual addiction — gaming 'loot boxes' introduce gambling at a young age, experts say

People and studies weigh in on whether gaming can lead to gambling problems.
Posted at 4:46 PM, Jan 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-11 16:49:34-05

CLEVELAND — Over the holidays, you might have given your kids some video games, but those games might not be as harmless you think when it comes to gambling. 5 On Your Side Investigators took a closer look at a local family’s tragic loss, loot boxes, and possible in-roads to gambling that kids and adults may not have considered.

“He was a very fun person. He made us laugh all the time,” said Andrea McGovern. She and her husband Bill from Mentor were remembering their son Mike and remembering what gambling did to him. “He wanted to do that so badly that he actually stole something from us to be able to do it,” said Andrea.

It wasn’t always like that. In fact, they said Mike was a successful salesman and without even going to college, at age 24, he bought his first home. However, his addiction to card games led to big debts and that helped push him to suicide.

“Problem gamblers talk about their stories and their introduction; they always go back to their childhood,” said Bill. The McGoverns worry about your children, and they are not alone.

“Gambling at an earlier age leads to a greater possibility of addiction and greater severity later in life,” said Mike Buzzelli from the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio. He said there are many ways gambling can be introduced to kids, including playing video games.

“Gaming, gambling — neither of them are inherently bad, but they do come with risks,” said Buzzelli.

With gaming expected to be a $29 billion industry for this year alone, some of those risks include loot boxes inside video games, where players spend genuine money to get something that’s a mystery. “You’re paying real-life currency to open up a secret box that may have nothing,” said Buzzelli, who also told us some gaming companies take that a step further. “Showing the odds of what your odds are of winning a loot box in the game, which, right, that is essentially gambling.”

A recent study from the United Kingdom’s House of Lords reports gaming loot boxes and gambling can be linked together — that people who spend money on loot boxes are more than 10 times as likely to be problem gamblers, and there are 55,000 problem gamblers ages 11-16 in that country.

“The World Health Organization just last May formally recognized gaming as a disorder,” said Dr. Chris Tuell. He’s the Clinical Director of Addiction Services at the Lindner Center of Hope near Cincinnati. He has treated young people with gambling addictions. He told us gaming can be just like alcohol or drugs. “We know the same neurochemical processes are happening in the brain,” said Dr. Tuell. “So, when we engage in behavioral addiction, it triggers those same neurochemicals, like dopamine, for example. “

Dr. Tuell said games provide intermittent reinforcement through in-game purchases or loot boxes, "to get the latest, the fastest, the newest add-ons to my game to help me succeed and do better."

So, parents, watch for the signs of problem gaming. “(Do they) give up relationships? Interest in other things become secondary? 'I’m not as engaged with my family'?” said Dr. Tuell.

Reports show kids are racking up thousands in bills buying loot boxes, making it a potential for future problem gamblers. “A good majority of them did start when they were younger,” said Dr. Tuell.

For the McGoverns, they just want you to be aware of your own children. “I was never angry at Mike,” said his mom Andrea. “I was just sad, just sad for this poor boy whose life was cut short by this.”

“And so talking it out…it’s difficult,” said Bill. “The tears might come, but it’s worth every tear.”

The gaming industry points to video games as a fun activity that most kids enjoy without any problems. However, if you are concerned and want to help a loved one, you can turn to these helpful resources:

Change the Game Ohio - A website specifically for youth gambling issues

Ohio Problem Gambling Helpline 1.800.589.9966

Problem Gambling Network of Ohio - 614.750.9899

Ohio Lottery Problem Gambling Helpline - 800.589.9966

Recovery Resources in Cleveland - 216.431.4131

National Gambling Hotline - 800.522.4700

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