ESRB introducing ‘In-Game Purchases’ label for ratings

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the North American industry body which assigns games age ratings, will expand its labelling on physical boxed games to include warnings of “In-Game Purchases”. This will cover everything that can be bought digitally for real money, from season passes and skins to microtransaction currencies and random loot boxes. They’re only a decade late to noticing all this, then.

Some industry commentators are disappointed that the ESRB don’t take a tougher stance against loot boxes, specifically pointing them out, but it’s no surprise. The ESRB exist to protect big publishers, and recently responded to a US senator’s concerns about loot boxes by calling them “a fun way to acquire virtual items.”

The ESRB’s new “In-Game Purchases” label will appear on the boxes of games in North American stores, as well as on the downloadable versions of those games. It’ll be similar to how ESRB ratings bits on boxes already list content descriptors that affect the rating–sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and all that–as well as aspects like if users interact with each other, if it provides unrestricted Internet access, and such. This new label is a broad one, as the ESRB explained in the announcement:

“The new In-Game Purchases label will be applied to games with in-game offers to purchase digital goods or premiums with real world currency, including but not limited to bonus levels, skins, surprise items (such as item packs, loot boxes, mystery awards), music, virtual coins and other forms of in-game currency, subscriptions, season passes and upgrades (e.g., to disable ads).”

I don’t doubt that this change is in response to growing complaints about loot boxes in games which let players optionally skip unlock grinding by paying money. Some consider this actual gambling, which I’m not entirely onboard with because it is basically just Kinder Eggs for gun skins and unlocks, though I would certainly agree that microtransaction-pushing loot boxes are designed to exploit people, they can prey on the vulnerable, as a progression system they make games worse, and they’re scummy – especially in something for kiddywinkles, like Star Wars.

The question of gambling hit the mainstream following Star Wars Battlefront 2’s guffy loot boxes, and has drawn attention from a number of governments. Questions were raised (and dismissed) with the UK government, and the Belgian Gaming Commission condemned loot boxes without taking action. Within the ESRB’s own purview, North America, actions against loot boxes have included law proposals from the Hawaiian state government and probing questions from senators.

On February 14th, Margaret Wood Hassan, the senator for New Hampshire, sent the ESRB a letter asking them to review their policy on loot boxes. She asked the ESRB to consider specifically labelling games which use them, to examine how ethical loot boxes are, to research how widespread and lucrative they are, and to “develop best practices for developers, such as ethical design, tools for parents to disable these mechanisms, or making them less essential to core gameplay.” It doesn’t matter, she said, whether loot boxes are gambling or not.

“The prevalence of in-game micro-transactions, often referred to as ‘loot boxes’, raises several concerns surrounding the use of psychological principles and enticing mechanisms that closely mirror those often found in casinos and games of chance. The potential for harm is real. Recently the World Health Organization classified ‘gaming disorder’ as a unique condition in its recent draft revision of the 11th International Classification of Diseases. While there is robust debate over whether loot boxes should be considered gambling, the fact that they are both expensive habits and use similar psychological principles suggest loot boxes should be treated with extra scrutiny. At minimum, the rating system should denote when loot boxes are utilized in physical copies of electronic games.”

The ESRB responded to Hassan’s letter yesterday (ta for the upload, Polygon) alongside announcing the new box label. ESRB president Patricia Vance restated the Board’s stance that loot boxes are not gambling, and that the new box label is to warn of potential purchases rather than potential psychological impact from loot boxes.

According to the ESRB’s research, Vance says, parents in general have very low awareness of loot boxes and “When we explain to parents what a loot box is, their primary concern by far is their child’s ability to spend money.” Loot boxes are purely a financial concern to the ESRB.

“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 to Hassan. She also pointed to a group of researchers disputing the World Health Organization’s classification. Loot boxes, the ESRB say, are harmless.

“We believe that loot boxes are more comparable to baseball cards, where there is an element of surprise and you always get something. Loot boxes are an optional feature in certain games that provide the player a fun way to acquire virtual items for use within the game itself. Most of the time, these items are cosmetic in nature. They are sometimes earned as an award to the player; other times they can be purchased. But at all times, they are optional. Additionally, there is no way to cash out in the game; the player can only use the item to customize game play experience.”

Waypoint recently had a great piece from Ellen McGrody looking at the real harm some real adults have already suffered through loot box systems. While the ESRB might want more evidence, it seems daft to dismiss concerns because studies aren’t in yet.

The thing is, the ESRB exist to protect the video games industry, not players. They’re a voluntary self-regulatory organisation which was originally formed to fend off the threat of an official US government crackdown on sexy and violent games. They exist to get the US government off the industry’s back. They appear to be doing the same now with this new label. And the ESRB were founded by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), who certainly aren’t on our side either.

The ESA are an industry association formed largely of big publishers such as Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, and Take-Two, and they do terrible things in their names. They have supported oppressive Internet crackdowns to fight piracy, called in loose cannons who prowled the Internet and issued faulty legal takedowns against mods, praised the Trump administration’s business-focused tax reform, and repeatedly opposed changes in copyright law proposed to support game preservation. Neither the ESRB nor the ESA are looking out for us.

And that’s why you’ll see little “In-Game Purchases” labels starting to appear on boxes in GameStop.

19 Comments

  1. HiroTheProtagonist says:

    I’m honestly surprised that Congress hasn’t been against this. We’ve seen at least one senator who plays PC games, and I wouldn’t be surprised if another senator/representative has a kid who’s racked up a fat bill from buying in-game gold on an iPad. Then again, the ESA probably lobbied to a few important members who saw no political disadvantage in supporting the practice, so any pushback from the public will be met with indifference.

    And it’s not like “vote with your wallet” will help either, since there have been plenty of whales willing to spend ridiculous amounts in the stead of sane players.

    • RuySan says:

      In the US many politicians are ok with everyone being able to buy combat-grade weapons to shoot kids, and you think they’ll make a fuss about in game purchases?

      • HiroTheProtagonist says:

        NRA and military contractors have been big money for Congress for years, and everybody knows neither will go away or stop sweet-talking favorable legislation out of them, regardless of how many children get mowed down. But you’d think that with a growing constituency of gamers lining up to vote there’d be a larger reaction to an issue that many congresscritters’ voterbases care about.

        • RuySan says:

          If the NRA can buy US politicians, so can the ESA or anyone, as long as they have the right amount of cash.

  2. automatic says:

    Isn’t Kinder Eggs illegal in USA? I think I saw this in a Youtube video.

    • RuySan says:

      link to en.wikipedia.org

      Apparently there’s an alternative called “Kinder Joy” where the gift comes separately. (this kinder joy also exists in other countries where kinder surprise already exists)

    • cakeisalie says:

      And rightly so. The god-awful chocolate in those things is a danger to everyone.

      • Xocrates says:

        Sometimes I wonder if other countries get a different chocolate. Kinder chocolate is easily my favourite, and I don’t think I know anyone who dislikes it.

        That said, it is rubbish if it gets old/dry, so maybe that’s what’s happening?

  3. kud13 says:

    The APA (American Psych Association) included “Internet Gaming Disorder” in its list of “to be researched further” potential medical disorders with the new addition of the DSM (which is basically “The big book of psychological disorders” ). It’s quite probable that the next (sixth) edition of the DSM will include this classification as a legit disa┬íling medical condition, alongside more well-known addictions.

    As much as I agree with the sentiment that loot boxes should burn in a fire, ESRB’s position on “we need more research” is sensible from every business POV. Anything more proactive at this point would be pure altruism, and like all self-regulating bodies, altruism is the last thing it’s there for.

  4. Freud says:

    So an industry body takes minimal steps hoping the problem will go away?

  5. SaintAn says:

    You’re my hero for calling them out. Yesterday at Kotaku they didn’t even mention that the ESRB works for the ESA in the article, let alone mention how messed up this all is or bring up studies showing how harmful loot boxes are. They brought up the ESRB ESA connection in the comments and the whole article sounded like it was written on behalf of the ESA. And they typically ignore news about the ESA screwing people over. It’s sad how many people end up ignorant and submissive to corporations from reading the wrong sites.

    • Aetylus says:

      Ah yes, self-regulation. Just ask the corporations to police themselve and hope they won’t abuse the situation… can’t see how that could possibly fail. Wishful thinking has always been the most effective means of legislation.

      • RayEllis says:

        Yeah, self-regulation at best is half-hearted and at worst, self-serving.

        It’s the equivalent of letting the friends and family of an accused murderer sit on the jury at his trial. You’d like to think they’d be impartial, but in reality, they’ll look after their own.

  6. aircool says:

    At a minimum, the percentage chance and odds for each item should be available in game when purchasing a loot box.

    Also a HUGE explanation for those who suffer from the gamblers fallacy; all because you have a 10% / 1/10 chance of getting an item, it doesn’t mean that you’ll get at least one of that item per 10 loot boxes.

  7. nitric22 says:

    And that’s the story of how paid transactions started being introduced as day one patches…

  8. thomas16632 says:

    “a fun way to acquire virtual items”
    lol sure, it’s so fun seeing having nothing interesting for lots of money.

    please buy your lootboxes yourself, businessmen (please vanish from this world)
    You won’t have my money never ever again, i won’t even buy a game with lootbox, and my sincere wish is that you loose all of your invested money.

  9. ludde says:

    Commendable article Alice.

  10. malkav11 says:

    The Google Play Store (and I think the iOS App Store, but I can’t recall for sure) already mark games with “in-game purchases” but that’s not remotely helpful unless you itemize what those transactions are. Like, on mobile, a not uncommon practice is to make the game download free and then sell you the rest of it as one or more in-game purchases. Provided I’m okay with their pricing, I’m completely comfortable getting into a game that does that. On the other hand, a whole lot of them are using those in-game purchases to sell you lootboxes or some freemium currency to bypass egregiously gross barriers to free play. I have no interest in even downloading that sort of thing. Lumping them together at best turns people off all of them, and more likely will simply be ignored.