Loot boxes are a problem. The industry has known this for a while, but was caught flat-footed in 2017 when it came to doing something about it, largely because they make a lot of money (and figured the issue would eventually go away). In response, players took their own actions, contacting governments and members of Congress. Earlier this month, a Senator threatened to involve the FTC if the ESRB didn't investigate the issue. In pursuit of change, it made sense for loot box critics to ask for guidance from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the industry group who handles content ratings and ultimately acts as an intermediary between consumers and publishers.
Unfortunately, last October, the ESRB said it “does not consider loot boxes to be gambling,” even though the very act of opening a loot box involves pulling the digital equivalent of a slot machine lever, and it's often possible the player has paid for the right to pull it. Amid mounting criticism, the ESRB came up with a new solution: a label.
In the “near future,” certain games will have an “in-game purchases” label on the box and attached to storefronts. This includes “bonus levels, skins, surprise items [such as item packs, loot boxes, mystery rewards], music, virtual coins and other forms of in-game currency, subscriptions, season passes and upgrades [e.g. to disable ads]”.
Hey, doesn’t that sound like every game released these days? In 2018, it’s rare when a game doesn't include something else to buy. Merely putting an “in-game purchase” label does little to inform consumers (or parents) about what’s actually there.
What’s more unnerving is how the ESRB arrived at this conclusion.
Kotaku was part of a conference call with members of the press ahead of this news—Waypoint was not invited—and ESRB president Patricia Vance explained why the organization went with a broad label, rather than anything specific to loot boxes.
“I’m sure you’re all asking why aren’t we doing something more specific to loot boxes,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of research over the past several weeks and months, particularly among parents. What we’ve learned is that a large majority of parents don’t know what a loot box is. Even those who claim they do, don’t really understand what a loot box is. So it’s very important for us to not harp on loot boxes per se, to make sure that we’re capturing loot boxes, but also other in-game transactions.”
The bolded section caught my eye, including this statement:
“We certainly considered whether or not loot boxes would constitute as gambling. We don’t believe it does. We think it’s a fun way to acquire virtual items for use within the game.
The ESRB's objective, according to their own website, is to “empower consumers, especially parents, with guidance that allows them to make informed decisions” and “holding the video game industry accountable for responsible marketing practices.”
In learning the people they were supposed to be serving had no idea what loot boxes were, the ESRB decided to relinquish that responsibility and hope parents just, uh, figure it out? Parents being unfamiliar with the concept should have set off alarms, and pointed the ESRB towards re-thinking how it educates the public. Instead, the ESRB said it didn't want to "overwhelm them with a lot of detail."
This comes after a public statement where the ESRB said it had "absorbed every tweet, email, Facebook post, and singing telegram" before finalizing this "sensible approach."
Loot boxes hit an inflection point last fall, as the predatory microtransaction found its way into a number of big-budget games, culminating in an enormous backlash to Star Wars: Battlefront II, a game where being good was overly reliant on being lucky enough for a loot box to produce the right equipment to keep pace. Bowing to criticism, EA didn’t strip loot boxes from Battlefront II, but did remove the option to pay for them.
Alongside the label, the ESRB has launched a new website, ParentalTools.org. Maybe the information not on the label would be there, an easy way for parents to understand the myriad ways the industry tries to monetize its products, often in ways that are not fully appreciable when you’ve walked out of the store with the box? Not really.
A trailer nods in the direction of microtransactions without calling out loot boxes, but does point people towards ways to limit in-game purchases. The group’s final piece of advice—”play games with your kid”—isn’t without merit, but falls upsettingly short of delivering clear and concise language about these “in-game purchases.”
Given the growing prominence of loot boxes, it falls directly under the ESRB’s purview to inform the public. Even if the ESRB wanted to avoid a judgement call on the general ethics of loot boxes—a low bar, mind you—this seems like a very reasonable ask.
But it makes sense for the ESRB to uphold the status quo, I guess; the organization is overseen by the Entertainment Software Association, a group regularly seen praising President Trump. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect more, especially on this.
At the Game Developers Conference this year, there's going to be a roundtable discussion called "Censorship Strikes Back," touching on the loot box conversation. Nobody's saying the industry shouldn't make money, but asking them to do so responsibly certainly isn't going to fall under most people's definition of censorship.
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