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The rise of lootboxes in video games has led to numerous investigations seeking to establish just how close to gambling they are. While the science behind lootboxes is only just beginning to come in, we do know a lot about how other forms of gambling take advantage of your brain and your pocket book.

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In 2018, the US Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation into the video game industry.

Why? Because of microtransactions in games that look a little too much like gambling.

Players are buying and selling lootboxes that might be filled with valuable powerups and skins that can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars -- and we mean real dollars. And while you might hear horror stories thrown about on social media about what this is doing to young people’s brains, the phenomenon is new enough that research is only just starting to come in. What has been extensively studied, however, is old-school gambling.

Slot machines and the like. These games can be fine-tuned to keep you playing… and take your money. In fact, we know a great deal about how your brain reacts to gambling games -- and what that tells us about how game designers can manipulate your behavior.

One of the first psychological principles related to these games is something taught in just about every intro psych class: schedules of reinforcement. Basically, they’re an answer to the question: how much should you reward a behavior to get more of it? Paradoxically, if you want a behavior to continue after you stop reinforcing it, you should be more unpredictable in your rewards.

The version of this used in gambling is called a variable reinforcement schedule. When a behavior finally stops, psychologists call that extinction. If a behavior has been rewarded on a variable reinforcement schedule, it takes longer for that behavior to go extinct after you stop giving rewards.

It works because if you do a thing and get rewarded every time and then the rewards stop, you might get frustrated and think that something has changed. But if it happens sometimes, and you don’t know exactly when, you learn that persistence is what makes the reward happen. That you have to keep trying, rather than only doing the thing once.

This is exactly what goes on with slot machine games, which we’ve known about since studies dating back to the 1960s. In one of these early studies, when three hundred twenty kids were assigned to play a slot machine game, kids who got a win just a third of the time would end up playing much longer after the game stopped paying out than those who got a win every time. Researchers also varied how many pulls of the lever they got before the machine stopped paying out -- and with fewer pulls, it was much more effective at keeping kids playing.

The kids who wound up playing the longest were those who only got in a single win before the slot machine stopped paying out. So when a gambling game gives players some kind of payout early on, it can keep them hooked for a while. Another thing that leads people to stick to these games is the idea of flow -- that's that in-the-zone feeling people get when they're absorbed in a challenging task.

And it looks like people experience flow when they gamble. A 2017 study surveyed five hundred volunteers who participated in online gambling. They found that among those who reported symptoms of gambling addiction, there were also signs of flow -- specifically losing track of time, and an immersive satisfaction with the experience.

Flow is usually associated with skilled tasks. And though they didn't ask about it in the 2017 study, other research suggests that people who are gambling can act like they’re using a skill even when they aren’t. Like, people will pay more for a lottery ticket if they can pick the numbers themselves instead of having the numbers assigned to them, even though it’s obviously the same odds of winning.

People will also bet less on a dice roll if it’s one that’s already happened and they just haven’t seen the result yet. Those are the kind of things you’d expect people to do if they thought they had some control over the outcome -- which, of course, they don’t. These things are random.

And though lots of psychologists look at flow as a positive state, the fact that it might play a role in addictive behaviors has led to them coining the term dark flow. It’s not just a problem with gambling -- it's also been a part of people's experience with social media addiction and internet gaming, particularly multiplayer online games. One last thing that keeps people coming back to games of chance is what researchers call a near miss.

On a typical slot machine, you want to get three matching symbols to win. So imagine if the first two line up to give you a jackpot, but then the third jackpot lands just above the winning row. That's a near miss.

And you can get them in other games, too -- like picking up a lootbox with a powerful weapon that just doesn't work for your character. Psychologists think that even though these things aren't really a win for the player, they reinforce our behavior kind of like a win does. It's kind of like an unconscious signal to "keep going, your strategy is working!" ...even if your "strategy" is pulling a lever.

One 2001 study showed that if you make about 30% of slot machine spins a near miss, you'll maximize how long people will keep playing in the absence of any reinforcement -- better than either fifteen percent or 45%. What makes this work is that different parts of your brain react to wins and losses, and a near miss kind of involves both. And not everyone’s brain responds the same way.

When non-gamblers play slot machines while having their brains scanned, getting a near-miss activates regions of the brain that look like a regular loss. But when people with symptoms of pathological gambling experience a near-miss, their brain looks more like it just got a win. But that's not the whole story.

For example, one 2014 study compared twenty-four people who showed signs of pathological gambling to twenty-four controls as they played computer slots while having their brains scanned by functional MRI. When any of the participants won, a region of the brain called the ventral striatum was activated. That’s a region found to be involved with reward response.

That region was also activated for near misses -- but only in the healthy controls. The researchers had predicted the opposite -- after all, you might expect a pathological gambler to get more reward from this near-win. So they guessed that maybe the pathological gamblers had just blunted their response to this non-win over time.

It also might work the other way: the smaller reward response means the gambler isn't experiencing enough reward from their almost-win -- and so they need to keep going. Whereas in the healthy controls, the brain reacts like almost winning is just as good as actually winning. It’s kind of like this near miss has a specific effect on people with pathological gambling symptoms -- part of the brain says you’re not being rewarded enough, but another part of the brain says you need to keep pushing.

So are microtransactions in online games... gambling? Some studies suggest they are, and that people with gambling problems are more susceptible to spending money on loot boxes in games. But that research is pretty new.

For now, what we can say is that old school gambling, like slot machines, is a perfect storm of things that keep your brain coming back or more, and some people develop real, serious addictions. So we can keep our eyes peeled for similar phenomena in newer games -- and maybe a tighter grip on our wallets when we see them. And if you’re working for one of these gaming companies, and you see research being done internally that you don’t see as particularly ethical, there are people you can reach out to to tell about that.

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