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Popular YouTuber calls for ESRB to step in over loot boxes

As controversy bubbles over, review aggregator OpenCritic takes "a stand against loot boxes"

Popular YouTuber John Bain has suggested that the ESRB should take action against the proliferation of loot boxes in videogames.

In a recent video Bain described the practice as predatory, saying that the psychology behind loot boxes was insidious and that government legislators need to catch up.

"Frankly I would argue that the ESRB needs to step in here," he said. "[The US government] should be saying: 'Look if you include these kind of mechanics in these games and you actually allow people to buy these packs for real money, these random blind packs and engage in what is essentially a form of gambling, then you should be jacking the rating of your game up to Mature.

"The fact that [Star Wars] Battlefield II is going to be Teen rated and yet has an in-game real money gambling system blows my mind. How are they possibly getting away with that? Well the answer is that the US government and legislation hasn't caught up with it yet."

Players and commentators have been making the argument for some time that loot boxes encourage a "pay-to-win" model, especially in multiplayer titles. However, as loot boxes become increasingly common with multiple AAA titles introducing them into the mix, including Star Wars: Battlefront II, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Destiny 2, Forza 7, and multiple EA Sports titles, the discussion has quickly moved onto the exploitative nature of the systems.

In an interview with PC Gamer, Dr Luke Clarke, director at the Centre for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, said: "The player is basically working for reward by making a series of responses, but the rewards are delivered unpredictably.

"We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards. Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis."

Bain also confronted Blizzard for its approach to loot boxes in the past. In particular, noting when the company found a loophole which allowed it to bypass strict Chinese transparency legislation, though he conceded that transparency is an issue across the board.

"The fact that no almost no company that offers a lootbox ever gives the odds to anybody and actively obfuscates that information should be of a great concern to people," he said. "What do you have to hide? Well we know exactly what you have to hide, because you feel you can profit greatly if you do hide that information and you may lose some money if you don't."

Other commentators argue that the presence of loot boxes is the developer trying to sell consumers an incomplete product, especially in the case of predominantly single player games like Shadow of War.

In a recent video, prominent YouTuber Jim Sterling said: "A lot of these things that used to be part of the basic experience, became cordoned off to be included part of a season pass or additional DLC packs that are either sold at launch or breadcrumbed out over the course a year... Both Forza 7 and Destiny 2 had content in predecessors that were held to ransom in their sequels."

The controversy and growing backlash from key members of the gaming community and their followers was partly responsible for the recent decision from review aggregator OpenCritic to "take a stand against loot boxes."

OpenCritic announced over Twitter that it was looking into ways to catagorise "business model intrusiveness" and was seeking input on how best to achieve this in an appropriate way.

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Ivy Taylor avatar
Ivy Taylor: Ivy joined in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.