The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) announced this week it will begin labeling video games that feature microtransactions or additional paid downloadable content. The “In-Game Purchases” label will appear “on all games that can be purchased in stores and wherever those games can be downloaded in the near future.”
This responds to a growing push for game publishers to at least more clearly address in-game purchases, if not severely limit their prevalence. Consumers have complained about increasing microtransactions for some time. The “need” to keep buying after a game purchase rankles gamers as-is, but loot boxes have turned their frustration into rage.
Additional skins or maps offer transparent value. Loot boxes, on the other hand, require purchase (with in-game or real currency) before revealing their contents. This (generously put) gambling-adjacent tactic keeps money rolling in post-release.
More importantly, the “Battlefront” controversy brought loot boxes to the attention of lawmakers both foreign and domestic. Chris Lee, a Hawaii state representative, announced in November a desire to curb the “predatory behavior” of video game publishers and has since introduced four bills regarding loot boxes. Washington state Sen. Kevin Ranker introduced a bill in January that required the state’s gambling commission to determine whether loot boxes are gambling and the process for regulating them. New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan also expressed her concern in an open letter to the ESRB.
But the ESRB’s decision essentially does nothing to address the complaint that loot boxes are akin to gambling. The press release lumps loot boxes in with other offers like bonus levels, music, and skins while offering no further clarification. They defend that decision partly by the desire to not overwhelm parents with information. They also don’t equate loot boxes and gambling, comparing them to collectible cards.
They’re technically correct about that (the best kind of correct). People who purchase loot boxes receive something. Regardless, it’s clear from the new labeling guidelines that publishers have little interest in reforming their golden goose. But their views matter less if consumers and, more importantly, lawmakers see loot boxes as gambling. Hassan is “still concerned” about the “potentially addictive nature of loot boxes” following the ESRB’s announcement.
I’ve written about additional game purchases before, including encouraging gamers to avoid “Battlefront 2.” I was excited to see a sustained, grassroots fight against a practice that has metastasized. As I’ve said about sports, consumers can end practices they don’t like by not financially supporting them (imagine the impact of a near-full boycott of the next “FIFA” or “Battlefront”).
I’m not yet comfortable with the government telling game publishers what to do, especially since customers have only once combined words with action on the issue. But I hope the ESRB realizes that, unless they more strongly address this issue, government will tell them what to do. Once they’ve got their claws in this medium, lawmakers will want more control.
Consider recent comments by Donald Trump and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin about the influence of violent video games following the Parkland massacre. The president said he’s “hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” Bevin’s comments included a confusing claim that video games are “forced down our throats under the guise of protected speech.”
The Supreme Court ruled in a 2011 case involving banning the sale of violent games to children that video games are protected under the First Amendment. But Justice Samuel Alito said a more carefully worded law might have survived. Similar accusations arose after Columbine and other mass shootings.
Government’s discomfort with violent video games has existed for decades. The desire to prevent government intervention led to the founding of the ESRB in 1994. Despite evidence to the contrary, the video game-violent behavior link understandably persists. Do game publishers really think that those in power will limit themselves to regulating supposed video game gambling when some instinctively connect mass shootings and video games?
A better law might stick next time. Video game publishers avoided (further) government involvement before by self-regulating once before. So, ESRB, please do the right thing and properly disclose or even abolish loot boxes. It’s for your sake as much as ours.