ESRB responds to loot box controversy with in-game purchase label

Rating board to add new indicator on physical games when players can spend money from within the game

With legislators threatening to crack down on loot boxes, the Entertainment Software Rating Board today announced its plan to address their concerns with an in-game purchases label it will begin applying to physical games.

In a roundtable call with journalists this morning, ESRB president Patricia Vance said the label will stand outside the normal ratings box and content descriptors, much like the "Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB" notification does now. It will be applied to any title with in-game opportunities to spend real-world currency, whether that be on loot boxes, skins, subscriptions, season passes, music, downloadable content, or even the option of disabling in-game ads.

"I'm sure you're all asking why we aren't doing something more specific to loot boxes," Vance said. "And I'll tell you we've done a lot of research over the past several weeks and months, particularly among parents. What we learned is that a large majority of parents don't know what a loot box is, and 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, but to make sure we're capturing loot boxes but also other in-game transactions."

Vance said when they did describe what a loot box was to parents, the ESRB found they were most concerned about whether or not their children were spending money rather than the specific mechanic they were spending money on.

"Parents need simple information," Vance said. "We can't overwhelm them with a lot of detail. We need to be clear, concise, and make it easy for them. We have not found that parents are differentiating between a lot of these different mechanics. They just know there might be something in the game they can spend money on."

Additionally, the ESRB is launching, a website that links to step-by-step instructions for setting parental controls on a variety of entertainment devices, whether they be controls on what games are played, how long they're played for, or how much children are allowed to spend.

"This is a couple of steps forward," Vance said. "We'll continue to work with the industry to ensure there are effective disclosures about in-game purchases in general, and more specifically loot boxes. So if there's more that we can do, we will."

When asked if the ESRB would then require publishers to disclose the drop rates of their loot boxes, Vance said the group isn't taking any action on that at this time.

Vance also addressed comments from US Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), who earlier this month called on the ESRB to disclose when loot boxes are used in games, as well as to review whether loot boxes in games aimed at children are being designed and marketed ethically, and to collect and publish data about the pervasiveness of loot boxes and how much money players spend on them.

"We do believe what we are announcing today is responsive to her concerns," Vance said, adding that she hopes it will open a dialog with the senator's office.

In a letter sent directly to Senator Hassan today, Vance touted the ESRB's new label and parental tools website, but disputed the premise of her concerns.

"While I appreciate your position and concerns, given the longevity of loot boxes as an in-game mechanic, there does not appear to be any concrete evidence of 'gaming disorders' stemming from loot boxes nor am I aware of any scientific evidence indicating that unlocking loot boxes has any psychological impact on children more specifically," Vance wrote, adding, "Additionally, in investigating the claims set forth in your letter, we did not encounter any loot boxes that specifically target children. Regardless, we will continue to monitor the research in this field, as well as stay abreast of parental concerns, should they arise, about the potential impact loot boxes have on children and help guide parents accordingly."

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Latest comments (7)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 24 days ago
Scientific evidence is the thing you ignore when it is there and use as an argument when it isn't.

It is also worth noting that there is not one Scottish Whisky distillery specifically targeting children. That does not mean you can task your kid with buying a bottle of Talisker on the way home from school. Not that there really was a scientific study on what would happen, just saying, take my word for it, do not try at home.
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Ian Griffiths Game Director, Hutch24 days ago
That's not a good comparison as we have lots of evidence as to the harm of alcohol on both people and children.

Loot boxes are widely consumed and so far there's little evidence of problems. Everything so far indicates that they don't have the same impact as gambling.
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Tudor Nita Lead Programmer, Gameloft Romania24 days ago
@Ian Griffiths: There are some studies here and there. While the blame is not clearly pointed at ( not in the studies themselves, anyway ) the effects of "today's society" as it concerns children, are there. "Freemium" is not the first in this trend, it's just ?the biggest?, as far as mass-market dissemination goes.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tudor Nita on 28th February 2018 10:19am

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Aleksi Ranta Category Management Project Manager 24 days ago
@Ian Everything?
"Everything so far indicates that they don't have the same impact as gambling."

So when developers entice players to spend real world money on an item that offers a randomized outcome, ranging from garbage to good, its not in anyway similar to gambling?
Players are not gambling away their money?

I agree on the word everything, everything indicates that it is a form of gambling, but not everything points to it having a 100% harmful inpact. but again, real world gambling is not 100% harmful but for is.
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I note the headline talks about the ESRB rating on physical games, I guess this means boxed games, which are normally sold at a premium price, in which case the main concern must be that the wording describing these in game purchases is clear and does not infer the game cannot be completed without them.... unless this is actually the case. With regard to free to play digital games the scenario is a lot different and more complicated, the lack of up front purchase price has totally changed the business model for publishers and it is arguably not so abhorrent to extract money in slightly more devious ways from consumers who otherwise can enjoy the labour of the people who's job it is to make, finance and publish the game for free. Most of us in the games making and publishing business would happily ban the free price point for digital downloads, which were originally created by the biggest multinational digital distribution channels to increase their volumes and go back to $20+ per game across the board and to hell with Loot Boxes.
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Ian Griffiths Game Director, Hutch23 days ago
@Tudor Nita: that article is about a secondary gambling market using digital items as stakes and not about loot boxes. In fact it mostly covers actual gambling including scratchcards and the government approved lottery.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ian Griffiths on 1st March 2018 1:31am

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Ian Griffiths Game Director, Hutch23 days ago
@Aleksi Ranta: In most places it's not legally gambling because the payout is not money or money's worth. If it is a form of gambling it's much like blind box toys, Magic the Gathering Booster packs and baseball cards. When I say everything I mean the data currently available.

The point is there's no evidence to show loot boxes have the same impacts as gambling despite their widespread consumption.
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