The ESRB has officially responded to the overwhelming controversies and complaints surrounding microtransactions and loot boxes. The Entertainment Software Rating Board, America’s classification body, have decided to label games containing microtransactions with an “in-game purchases” label. The pressure to act was building for months, but February saw it skyrocket. In early February, Hawaii legislated an “in-game purchases” label and a 21+ age restriction on games with microtransactions. Furthermore, US Senator, Maggie Hassan, wrote a letter to the ESRB detailing that the “expensive habits” and “psychological principles” means “loot boxes should be treated with extra scrutiny”. The ESRB also stated they will be launching ParentalTools.com to educate parents and raise awareness.
Slow to act
The controversy surrounding microtransactions are not new. The gaming community has multiple problems with loot boxes, such as the unfair progression and pay-to-win dependence of games like Battlefront 2. However, the biggest problem, which requires government intervention, is the claims that lootboxes are a disguised form of gambling. In late 2017, Belgium and Germany launched investigations to see if lootboxes’ “mixture of money and addiction is a game of chance,”. While the guarantee of something, despite how common the loot is, means lootboxes aren’t all or nothing like gambling, the lack of transparency over drop rates hurts companies’ credibility. While some games, like CS:GO and League of Legends, have posted their drop rates online, the rarity of many items only incriminates them further. Senator Hassan’s letter singled out “expensive habits” and “psychological principles” as the biggest link between the two. Dr Colin O’Gara, consultant psychiatrist at St John of God Hospital in Dublin, states that the surge of dopamine that comes with the anticipation of good loot makes spending money on lootboxes have the same addicting qualities as something like a slot machine. Lootboxes have had the evidence stacked against them for some time. As the ESRB took so long to act, it shows an obtuse reluctance on their part.
Will it help
At first glance, this is an important first step in solving the issues surrounding lootboxes. The ESRB is an important body that has international influence, meaning Australia will likely follow their lead. However, their actions seem weak compared to what consumers and government bodies have asked of them. The “in-game purchases” label is somewhat rudimentary and an oversimplification. Mobile games, like Candy Crush, have had this label for some time and for the most part it has worked. However, for retail games the ESRB has failed to distinguish between the various types of “in-game purchases”. This all encompassing term includes in-game currency, map packs, cosmetic items, music or soundtracks, and finally lootboxes. By this definition, indie games like SuperGiant Games’ Pyre is classified the same as Battlefront 2. One offers a purchasable soundtrack and the other offers lootbox system so controversial it was temporarily disabled. Furthermore, official bodies, like Germany’s Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Media, call for a total ban. A simple label is far off a ban. However, a lootbox ban seems unlikely following reports of the overwhelming commercial benefits lootboxes bring.
The ESRB stated they will make adjustments to their actions “as the need arises”, but expect the struggle against lootboxes to continue for some time. For more information on the controversies surrounding lootboxes, check out Gamers Classified’s feature piece.