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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

An Industry Solution: ESRB To Provide Loot Box Warning

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Let's hope people read it.

Once upon a time, the gaming media made a huge deal about Republican Senator Josh Hawley's proposed legislation for the United States government to federally regulate loot box mechanics in videogames. What they haven't told you since is that the bill has gone absolutely nowhere and has died in committee. It's forgotten about by both the media and by Congress. Senator Hawley, along with his two Democrat co-sponsors Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal, have since gone on to focus on many other things, most of which are also similarly doomed.

And yet loot boxes haven't gone away as a hot topic among the gaming industry. That's why the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has just introduced a new rating disclosure: In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items).

I suggested back last year that the ESRB included that in-game purchases are in games to arm parents with information. This is an expansion of that. There's “In-Game Purchases” for normal DLC (including things like expansion passes where you don't know what you're actually getting at the time of purchase), and now “In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items)”, which features loot boxes and also encompasses things similar to loot boxes.

The ESRB cites unspecified research saying that parents wish to know that a game has In-Game Purchases and they don't care if they're random or casino-like. I assume that, to them, it doesn't matter why a kid is stealing their credit card to buy some in-game item, just that they are stealing their credit card. The ESRB states that this new descriptor is a factor of gamer demand (and not necessarily parents). The ESRB went with it on a “more, specific information is good” basis.

Here are the ESRB's exact descriptions: 

In-Game Purchases
Contains in-game offers to purchase digital goods or premiums with real world currency, including but not limited to bonus levels, skins, music, virtual coins and other forms of in-game currency, subscriptions, season passes and upgrades (e.g., to disable ads).

In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items)
Contains in-game offers to purchase digital goods or premiums with real world currency (or with virtual coins or other forms of in-game currency that can be purchased with real world currency) for which the player doesn’t know prior to purchase the specific digital goods or premiums they will be receiving (e.g., loot boxes, item packs, mystery awards).

There's always a question of “Do parents read the ESRB warnings to begin with?” According to the Entertainment Software Association's (ESA) 2019 Essential Facts report (which I wrote about here in terms of its generational perspectives), most parents regularly use the ESRB ratings, though whether they fully understand them isn't asked. I should note that the ESA operates the ESRB, and has a vested interest in making it look good. Many of the member companies in the ESA are also the same companies that are filling their games with loot boxes and other predatory revenue mechanisms.

Source is the ESA's 2019 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.

I'm generally inclined to agree with “more information allows for a better free market and this is good and preferable to government regulation.” That's the argument I made in last year's article. That said, there are instances where I disagree with it, like the genetically modified foods label movement that exists just to fear-monger.

In this example, however, notifying people that the game has loot boxes isn't fear-mongering. It's honest and necessary disclosure of a practice that does demonstrable harm to people, and it's also a distinct game feature that's worth noting.

We just need to make sure that the label is consistently applied. And maybe games might add loot boxes after they were rated by the ESRB, with patches and stuff. Seems like an interesting back door method. Fortunately, 9 out of every 10 parents pay attention to the games their child plays, right?! I wonder how that stat works with all of the divorced/single-parent households. Regardless, this is more information for the gamer who wants to avoid loot boxes. Parents with money will just be concerned by the fact there are in-game purchases of any sort.

Despite his tangent at the end of the article, Ludwig is still happy that there are industry solutions and the government regulation attempt went nowhere. It probably won't be back either, given all the other things that are going on. You may dislike this idea and think it doesn't go far enough (what do you want, a start-up warning screen akin to not breaking your inconveniently nearby glass vase with motion controls?), especially if you tend to distrust industry to begin with and view the fact that the offending companies get to control the ratings board as a problem.


  1. I'm glad they have two different descriptions, since originally I remember being concerned that a game with regular DLC would be labeled exactly the same as a game with loot boxes.

    1. And that was the case for a few years, but now they'll be more specific.

      (Though their point, which I agree with, is that parents don't care one way or the other.)

    2. Yeah, that's true. I feel like the distinction is more helpful for someone buying a game for themselves than for parents buying for their kids.

    3. I'd like to think people buying games research this stuff ahead of time, but...
      ...I'm sure there are millions of casuals who just buy FIFA and Call of Duty who don't and will only be informed by the ESRB rating.
      (Then they'll buy them anyway because they'll see the ESRB description and shrug, not understanding implications.)


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