ESRB Will Label Games With “In-Game Purchases”
Over the last several months, there has been mounting pressure on game companies and rating boards to do something about the rise in concern over in-game microtransactions and loot boxes. Politicians have been getting involved, and earlier this month we saw a US senator directly call on the ESRB to take action. Now, the ESRB has announced its first step into tackling the problem, but it doesn’t seem particularly satisfactory.
The ESRB’s new label, which will read “In-Game Purchases,” will be located near the rating category (E for Everyone, M for Mature, etc.) but will not be housed inside the same box as content descriptors (Sexual Content, Comic Mischief, etc.). The ESRB expects games to begin arriving in stores with the new label in the “near future.” This will coincide with the launch of a new website intended to inform parents about the ESRB’s ratings system, how in-game purchases work, and how to use parental tools to control what and how children play games. The new label will offer no specifics about the type of in-game purchases available so as to avoid overwhelming parents with too much information.
Despite loot boxes being perceived as the most contentious element, ESRB president Patricia Vance says parents are not specifically concerned with those, but the broader potential for their children to spend money in general. As such, this label will cover not just loot boxes, but other forms of DLC like maps or purchases of in-game currency. This of course raises an obvious question: Isn’t that every game these days?
During a conference call with the ESRB attended by GameSpot, Vance drew a distinction between things that are offered “in-game” versus a traditional expansion pack or “large DLC.” However, she did say that if such content is offered in-game, it would necessitate the label. This would seemingly include the vast majority of games; as publishers increasingly focus on post-launch microtransactions, there are certainly few big-name games that don’t offer players some way to spend more money on them. Vance would only say, “There are games that do not have in-game purchases.”
This move by the ESRB comes not long after United States Senator Maggie Hassan called on the group to look into loot boxes and their effects on players. She also requested that the ESRB label games that contain loot boxes. Vance believes the new In-Game Purchases label is an “effective response,” but it’s not necessarily the last step the ESRB will take.
The idea behind the label is to warn concerned parents looking to buy games for their kids. As ESRB’s head, Patricia Vance, puts it “parents need simple information”, the ESRB doesn’t want to “overwhelm them with a lot of detail”.
Currently, the ESRB does not plan to specifically single out games with loot box mechanics. The ratings board says: “We’ve done a lot of research over the past several weeks and months, particularly among parents. What we’ve learned is that a large majority of parents don’t know what a loot box is. 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, to make sure that we’re capturing loot boxes, but also other in-game transactions.”
Vance added that the ESRB does not constitute loot boxes as a form of gambling, in their eyes, it is a “fun way to acquire virtual items for use within the game”.
“We believe that this is an effective response,” she says. “If you care about parents, if you care about their concerns, this is an effective response. … This is just a first step. We are going to continue to look at this issue, we’re going to continue to determine if there are additional measures that we can take, additional guidelines that we can put in place. We are always evolving our system and this is obviously an issue of concern to the gamer community. We’re going to continue to take a look at what more we can do.”
Vance also says that the ESRB doesn’t plan to use its Simulated Gambling or Real Gambling content descriptors because a game includes loot boxes. She reaffirms that the ESRB doesn’t consider loot boxes to be gambling, in part because they are typically optional and can sometimes be acquired by playing: “We think it’s a fun way to acquire virtual items for use within the game and to enhance your experience or personalize your experience. Obviously, there’s an element of surprise, just like baseball trading cards, but you always get something, there’s no way to cash out, players can complete a game without ever buying a loot box if they choose not to… There are a lot of different factors where we just don’t think it would qualify for either of our gambling descriptors.”
The ESRB also plans to issue a response to Senator Hassan’s recent letter, in which it highlights the new label and website. It also cites its research into how few children are allowed to make in-game purchases without permission (91% are not allowed, it claims) and says the problem is primarily one of awareness. It remains to be seen whether any of the proposed loot box legislation–either in the US or abroad–goes anywhere, but it seems unlikely that this new measure by the ESRB alone will quell lawmakers’ interest in pursuing the issue.