Gaming Safely: Understanding In-Game Purchases and Their Impact on Kids

Video games have transformed significantly over the years. Now, rather than receiving an entire game as a one-time purchase, games can now often be purchased for free or at reduced prices to consumers, who are then encouraged to spend money in order to receive game enhancements. While these features have revolutionized the gaming industry, they have also brought up concerns, especially for parents worried about their children’s safety and spending habits. Let’s break down what loot boxes and microtransactions are and why they matter.

What Are Loot Boxes?

Loot boxes are virtual items in games that players can buy with real or in-game money. When a player purchases a loot box, they receive a random assortment of in-game items, which can include things such as cosmetic changes to characters or upgrades that improve gameplay. The catch is players don’t know what they are getting until after they’ve paid, making it similar to gambling.

What Are Microtransactions?

Microtransactions are also virtual items in games that players can buy with real or in-game money. The only difference between microtransactions and  loot boxes is that with microtransactions players know exactly what they’re buying. Rather than a random reward, microtransactions provide a straightforward way for players to enhance their gaming experience.

Do Kids Feel Pressured to Spend?

Some do! In many online games, having certain items can make a player look cool or more experienced. This can make some children feel pressured to spend money in order to not feel left out or to be seen as “noobs” (new or bad players).

In competitive games, spending money can give a player an edge, making it tempting to buy upgrades to keep up with others or to beat the game. In cooperative games, kids might feel obligated to spend money so they don’t let their teammates down with subpar equipment or player skills.

What are the Concerns?

Opponents of in-game purchases point to research that shows the random nature of loot boxes make them similar to gambling, as both employ a system which rewards behavior unpredictably, potentially encouraging addictive patterns. The use of in-game currency can also make it harder for players to realize how much real money they’re spending, leading to impulsive buying.

The Kids are Alright

While the concerns about in-game purchases are real, it’s important to keep them in perspective. Video games have faced criticism for decades, often being blamed for various societal issues. However, almost all of the concerns about gaming behavior have not held up under scrutiny. For instance, studies have shown that violent video games do not increase aggressive behavior as once feared.

Regarding gambling, the percentage of people (both adult and child) showing problem gambling behavior has not changed much over the years. A small percentage of gamers spend most of the money on in-game purchases. A 2023 study found that 1.5% of players account for 90% of in-game revenue. This mirrors broader gambling statistics, where a small percentage of people, including youth, struggle with gambling addiction.

Signs of Gambling Problems

Though the grand majority of video game players do not struggle with gambling issues, it is important for parents to recognize the signs of gambling problems in their children (or themselves!), should they arise. These can include:

  • Intense interest in conversations about gambling
  • Frequently asking for money
  • Major mood swings
  • Owing money to others
  • Increased interest in sports and checking scores/spreads
  • Spending a lot of money or suddenly having new, expensive things
  • Being secretive about online activity
  • Stealing
  • Possessing gambling materials like betting sheets or lottery tickets
  • Sudden knowledge of gambling terms

If you suspect your child has a gambling problem, approach them with empathy and understanding. Educate yourself about gambling addictions and seek help from a mental health professional if necessary.


In-game purchases have drastically changed the gaming industry, bringing new challenges and concerns. While they can enhance the gaming experience, it’s important to be aware of their potential pitfalls, especially for younger players, or for people with gambling problems. Most players handle these purchases responsibly, but it’s important for parents to stay informed and communicative. By fostering open communication and understanding, you can help your child navigate the world of gaming safely and enjoyably.

Written by

Dr. Luke Dowling, Psy.D.

Dr. Luke Dowling is a licensed psychologist with over fifteen years of experience in the mental health field. Following over a decade in private practice, Dr. Dowling currently works for Providence Hospital in Portland, Oregon, and also serves as a Senior Consultant at Dowling Consulting Group assisting educators and businesses in effectively addressing mental health challenges. His approach combines deep clinical expertise with practical strategies to empower clients in managing stress, enhancing resilience, and fostering a more productive environment.