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 ParentalTools.org, 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."