Loot boxes have remained a sticking point for gamers, and for good reason. They promote predatory practices by largely relying on the same mechanics as gambling while also forcing a game’s structured to be curtailed around them. In short, they are an insidious creature that continues to affect games in a largely negative way. For a long while, it was something that was just accepted in the game industry as the standard operating procedure. This was until Star Wars Battlefront 2 came onto the scene with its egregious loot box mechanics, and suddenly, once the brand of Star Wars was attached to something vile as loot boxes, people began to take notice.
Since the controversy, websites, YouTubers, newspapers, representatives, senators, and even Germany itself have taken notice of the practice of loot boxes in the game’s industry, opting to examine it. To absolutely no one’s surprise, most have come to the same conclusion, that loot boxes are in fact gambling (or shares too many similarities of gambling) and should be something regulated. This is—of course—a cause for alarm in the game industry, after all, this is the same industry that risked being regulated by the US government before and eventually was appeased with the creation the ESRB.
But with the onset of Star Wars Battlefront 2 loot box debacle, the game industry is once again at risk of being regulated by several government bodies. In an effort to prevent that, the ESRB has opted to take its first step (as of February 27th) to address the problem with the following statement:
The first step the ESRB has opted to pursue in regards to loot boxes is to create a label, one that will encompass any and all games that have an in-game purchase. To paraphrase a recently viral line, your comments this week have been pathetically weak.
The issues with this serving as a first response from the ESRB is a reminder of who the ESRB is, and what their potential goals are.
One of the major issues with choosing the label “In-Game Purchases” is how broad of a term that it is. Most modern games today feature some sort of “In-Game Purchases”, even those that are single player can feature such things. This means that Star Wars Battlefront 2’s loot boxes—as far the ESRB is concerned—is exactly the same as selling a DragonBall FighterZ character or a new emote for Monster Hunter World. This is extremely problematic naming scheme, not only does this fail to create important distinctions between the types of purchases available to a player but it also in the same stroke, diminishes the concern of loot boxes. If loot boxes are grouped into the same group that is also selling costumes or other legitimate DLC content, people will begin to simply become less concerned with the phrase “In-Game Purchases” as all the other items attached to it outside of loot boxes are simply additional purchases. In effect, it lowers the concern for loot boxes, by grouping into other non-concerning items.
It would be similar to the same effect as referencing beer as a drink. Drink is such a broad term and encompasses such a large variety of items (water, soda, coffee etc.) that referencing beer as a drink, fails to encapsulate the unique and concerning properties that beer contains, alcohol. If someone said to you “I am going to grab a drink before we leave,” there would be no cause for alarm. However, if they said “I am going to grab a beer before we leave,” depending on the context (such as driving), this could be a cause for alarm. But, when using the broader term that fails to include the specifics (which is the important part), the same message isn’t imparted to the listener and can potentially warp the reaction to the more specific term if it is always referenced as the broader one.
This is where it is important to remember who the ESRB actually is. Remember, that the ESRB is an industry run self-governing body that was created in the 90s as a response to violent video games to placate legislators. Its goal since its inception has been to maintain the status quo between those two groups, but ultimately since it is a self-governing body, its interests will certainly lean in favor of game developers and publishers. It is here where all the red flags begin to raise with its initial response when it comes to loot boxes. Again, using the messaging that it has chosen, and including it with such a wide group, it would seem that the goal of this initial step is to essentially deflect the issue.
The ESRB is in a position where it must do something if only to show others that they are attempting to address the problem. But the actions it has chosen have the side effects of reducing the concern around loot boxes. This red flag is only further reinforced by the statements made by one of the ESRB’s spokespersons, Patricia Vance in regards to loot boxes as gambling.
“We tried to find research on that….but we were unable to find any evidence that children were specifically impacted by loot boxes, or that they were leading them toward some tendency to gambling. We truly don’t know of any evidence supporting those claims. We continue to believe loot boxes are a fun way to acquire virtual items; most of them are cosmetic.”
In regards to specifically mentioning loot boxes
“a large majority of parents don’t know what a loot box is, and those who claim that they do don’t really understand what a loot box is…It’s important for us not to harp on loot boxes, per se….When we did describe what a loot box is to parents, we found their primary concern by fair is their child spending money. This initiative [parentaltools.org] we’re launching is focusing on that, which we also think is an effective approach to managing loot boxes specifically.”
During both of these responses, loot boxes are never specifically addressed. Yes, they are mentioned, but they are never treated as something specifically more problematic than downloadable content as a whole. When responding to why not, the answer is shifted over to parents simply not knowing, and that the focus should be on promoting parental controls as a whole. On the surface, this is not a bad thing for the ESRB to be doing. The problem is that this is their response to loot boxes. If this was just a response to DLC, this would be an appropriate way of potentially dealing with that problem. Instead, because it also includes loot boxes, it again fails to address the additional concern that they specifically carry.
The answer isn’t to avoid informing parents of what they are, the answer is to inform parents why they should be concerned about them and include information on how to set up parental controls. But all of this is predicated on the idea that this problem is solely focused on children, when things like gambling, affect more than kids, it also affects adults. Shifting the concern of loot boxes to solely kids is disingenuous, as gambling addictions is a real problem that many adults suffer from, and making parental controls the solution to that problem when there is no child, does nothing to solve the problem.
This lackluster response provided by the ESRB should serve as an unfriendly reminder, that the ESRB is an industry run, self-governing group. That when push comes to shove the ESRB will attempt to side with the industry it is apart of, before siding with consumers. We should all be extremely skeptical when it comes to the ESRB and loot boxes, and expect them to continue to resist placing warnings about loot boxes on game’s labels. If we wish to remove the predatory practices of loot boxes than we will not only need to vote with our wallets but also vote with our ballots. If this is the ESRB’s first response that we should effectively count them out until enough pressure is placed to force their hand.