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The ESRB's Toothless Tangle With Loot Boxes

Roberts has been a games enthusiast since 1997, a reviewer since 2009 and a cynic since 2014. His articles appear in 19 games' loot boxes.

The ESRB proving it isn't fit for purpose by saying gambling is fine in a Teen-rated game.

The ESRB proving it isn't fit for purpose by saying gambling is fine in a Teen-rated game.


The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has no desire to do its job as even a meek regulatory power in the video games industry, it said publically and unironically on Twitter on April 13th, 2020. To quote them, "#ESRB will begin assigning a new Interactive Element, In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items)," said the tweet (see link above), "find out more on our blog". Their blog is full of the self-congratulatory guff one expects from the PR team of a mostly inept organisation, so desperate for attention that it needs to praise its own work because nobody else really cares enough about them. Excerpts include,

"To provide even greater transparency about the nature of in-game items available for purchase the ESRB will now begin assigning a new Interactive Element: In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items)."

Which the organisation is using to frame "loot boxes" as something people got mad about but it's OK. Except it isn't. Loot boxes have far more psychological triggers than cellophane wrapping, their contents can be replicated digitally (often only by the developers), their odds changed in an instant thanks to modern-day patching technique, and players are already being used to advertise the contents of them as seen in just about any multiplayer game.

They continue with their delusions of benevolance,

"In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items) will be assigned to all games that include purchases with any randomized elements, including loot boxes, gacha games, item or card packs, prize wheels, treasure chests, and more."

So, why not just say "this game contains [the better known] loot boxes?" Or what governments around the world are increasingly warming to the idea of, which is calling them gambling?

"The original In-Game Purchases notice will still be assigned to games that offer any other type of purchase, including additional levels, cosmetic items, DLC, expansions, etc. However, going forward it will not be assigned to games with “loot boxes” or similar mechanics to ensure consumers clearly understand when the game offers purchases with randomized elements."

There's that word again. Loot boxes. Not surprise mechanics, gacha games, prize wheels. Loot boxes were the first that came to mind. It's almost as if it's a very popular and generic term that's dangerously close to that other thing people associate in-game purchases including random items with: gambling.

This is a great enough distinction to make the countries they operate in for real regulatory organisations to back away. At least for now.

Kerry "surprise mechanics" Hopkins of Electronic Arts at UK Parliament, on a loot box hearing

Kerry "surprise mechanics" Hopkins of Electronic Arts at UK Parliament, on a loot box hearing

Their "why now" heading is the most appropriate and unwittingly damning part of their blog post. Why now? Why not two years ago when this was kicking off? Or four when it was picking up speed? Or 10 years ago when they made it made its first notable appearance in Team Fortress 2?

"According to research, parents are far more concerned about their child’s ability to spend real money in games than the fact that those in-game purchases may be randomized."

The research which is not disclosed, and is only done on parents. What age groups are the children, what platforms are the parents most concerned about, how much money is being spent on these games on average? The article does not say. What about enthusiast's comments about loot boxes' and other gambling mechanics' effects on video games? What research has the ESRB done?

Hilariously they ask themselves "why not say 'loot boxes'" in another header, with the following answer,

"“Loot box” is a term that doesn’t encompass all types of randomized in-game purchase mechanics. We want to ensure that the new label covers all transactions with randomized elements. In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items) accounts for loot boxes and all similar mechanics that offer random items in exchange for real-world currency or in-game currency that can be purchased with real money."

Loot box is a generic term used to describe them. It wouldn't cost anything (besides printer ink on game case in-lays) to say "loot boxes and other random items".

"Moreover, we want to avoid confusing consumers who may not be familiar with what a loot box is. Recent research shows that less than a third of parents have both heard of a loot box and know what it is. “Loot box” is a widely understood phrase in and around the video game industry and among dedicated gamers, but most people less familiar with games do not understand it. While this new label is primarily in response to feedback from game enthusiasts, it is still essential that all consumers, especially parents, have a clear understanding of the rating information we provide."

Again, reference to research that they don't link. I'll humour them and ask what they themselves are doing to inform parents about what loot boxes and other gambling mechanics are, and the dangers to people who have addictive personalities and spending problems? What is the ESRB doing to make people aware of the help they can receive for gambling problems related to—or in direct correlation to—the 'random items' of video game monetisation?


"As always, we will continue to monitor how video games evolve and innovate to ensure that we provide parents and other consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions about which games and apps are appropriate for their family."

History leaves no room for optimism, given their absence from video game regulation is consistently noticeable. The ESRB is not only terribly late, but despite saying they're aware of enthusiast comments on "random items", they aren't aware of the idea of rating all games with them as M for Mature or AO for Adults Only. The ESRB wouldn't do that though, as game retailers won't stock anything with a rating higher than M.

The ESRB's timing was perfect amidst the Covid-19 affair, bravely slapping on an additional few words to games when loot boxes are on their way out and battle passes are making their way in.

Just call them loot boxes.


John Roberts (author) from South Yorkshire, England. on April 30, 2020:

I'd still be interested in your thoughts on the matter! To be honest I feel quite late to this one myself, but I think there needs to be more general pieces on why such things are bad rather than just going after the most relevent news which just gets thrown on a forgotten pile, such as my article.

I did a "Loot Boxes are Fine, and Other Lies" article on my other account talking about loot boxes, but it didn't gain too much traction. I still stand by all I said in that though, and use it as a reference for when I enter the conversation about the subject.

Like I say, if ever you do anything on these subjects, I look forward to seeing them! ^^

Kyler J Falk from California on April 30, 2020:

Damn, you beat me to the topic. I've been reluctant to write on the negatives for a hot minute, always makes me feel terrible to even discuss them let alone dig in and write about them.

"Our side lost the argument so I guess we'll finally take action. Can't be on the losing side!"

If only more adults took the time to dig into their kids' interests then we could set the industry back on course. Personally I write a letter to my congressman every month, and my last one ripped into the intricacies of predatory battle passes.