In response to public outcry, the ESRB will officially be including the words “Includes Random Items” under the “In-Game Purchases” tag on all physical and digital copies of video games containing randomized “loot box” style microtransactions. Although this change might appear small, it’s a huge step forward for gaming.
For the past five years, loot boxes and other randomized microtransaction game mechanics have become increasingly despised by a majority of avid gamers who complain that the mechanics are too similar to gambling. While the goal of most gamers decrying loot boxes has been to prevent their implementation and ensure their outright ban, such as in countries like Belgium, America’s Entertainment Software Rating Board seems to be handling the subject with a much lighter touch.
Though it may not be the win gamers were hoping for, this is at least a step in the right direction and opens the door for stricter actions to be taken in the future. The ESRB isn’t alone in this action, either. Their overseas counterpart, the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) ratings board, will also be adding a similar tag on all future physical and digital releases, which states “Includes Paid Random Items.” According to the ESRB’s, this has been done “To provide even greater transparency about the nature of in-game items available for purchase.” With any luck, that is exactly what these new disclaimers will do.
The reason for the open-ended wording of the ESRB’s disclaimer is because Loot Box itself is a somewhat vague term, and what does and does not constitute a Loot Box remains vaguely defined. However, the actual effectiveness of these new labels is questionable. By the ESRB’s own admission, their research shows that parents are typically aware of what a loot box is, and aren’t as concerned with the random nature of the contents as they are with the loot boxes being purchased with real-world money. With the majority of parents seemingly ignorant to what loot box microtransactions are, these new labels seem destined to be ignored. As many Call of Duty: Modern Warfare players can attest, the Mature rating of the franchise does little to stop adolescents filling up the multiplayer lobbies. If the parents aren’t even looking at the main rating, how effective could it’s sub-headings be?
Many parents seem willing to ignore, or are oblivious to the content in the games that they purchase for their children. The industry’s worst offenders will likely be able to continue with their aggressive monetization and manipulation of the system without suffering much recourse, such as in the case of EA and their 2019 release of NBA 2K20. Despite its “E for Everyone” rating, NBA 2K20 still allows players to pay real money to use in-game slot machines and other gambling devices to receive randomized card packs and other prizes.
Still, the fact remains that EA has taken in nearly a billion dollars annually from its in-game microtransactions alone. It’s easy to see why developers are wary of any type of loot box or microtransaction regulations, and why the ESRB has been so hesitant to take a stance on the subject. It’s unlikely that this latest attempt at regulating randomized microtransactions will satisfy the gaming community at large. However, this is still a big step towards moving the industry away from using this type of aggressive monetization and opens the doors for further regulations to be implemented in the United States and Europe.
The ESRB has finally added a disclaimer regarding microtransactions and loot boxes to their ratings labels, but will they have any effect?