After Months Of Controversy, ESRB Will Add ‘In-Game Purchases’ Label To Games

After Months Of Controversy, ESRB Will Add ‘In-Game Purchases’ Label To Games

As pressure from pundits and politicians mounts, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) said today that it will start adding the “In-Game Purchases” label to any game that lets you pay real money for digital goods.

The label will apply to “bonus levels, skins, surprise items (such as item packs, loot boxes, mystery awards), music, virtual coins and other forms of in-game currency, subscriptions, season passes and upgrades (e.g., to disable ads),” the ESRB said this morning in a press release.

You might be thinking: Won’t this label apply to just about every modern video game? The answer is: Yes, probably. On a call with reporters this morning, ESRB president Patricia Vance said that any video game with an in-game option to purchase extra content will get the “In-Game Purchases,” label, whether that content comprises premium currency or a $25 expansion pack.

As long as you can buy something through a game’s menu, the game will get this label.

The label is not designed to warn adult gamers that a game might contain microtransactions; it’s designed for concerned parents buying games for their kids. “Parents need simple information,” Vance said. “We can’t overwhelm them with a lot of detail… We have not found that parents are differentiating between these different mechanics.”

Vance said the ESRB does not plan to focus specifically on loot boxes, the controversial mechanic that allows players to spend real or in-game money in exchange for randomised rewards.

“I’m sure you’re all asking why aren’t we doing something more specific to loot boxes,” she said. “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.”

This news comes two weeks after US Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire sent an open letter to the ESRB asking the board to “review the completeness of the board’s ratings process and policies as they relate to loot boxes, and to take into account the potential harm these types of micro-transactions may have on children”. Other US state politicians have also spoken up and even begun introducing legislation to label or regulate loot boxes.

In October, the ESRB told Kotaku that it did not consider loot boxes to be gambling. When asked by a reporter whether that stance had changed, Vance said it had not.

“We certainly considered whether or not loot boxes would constitute as gambling,” said Vance. “We don’t believe it does. We think it’s a fun way to acquire virtual items for use within the game.”


  • Welp. Problem solved! Let’s all go and get icecream that charges you an extra dollar for the cone and 50c per topping. Except you don’t choose the topping, it’s random.

    • I remember some of the drink machines in Japan had a button that made a random selection for you instead. I thought that was pretty cool.

      • I used to use them all the time. Until I got Fanta and literally died from sugar.

        Posting from the shoe-box sized apartment I now Grudge haunt.

  • I’m going to start a business that has pokies machines giving loot box rewards and dump them in every school and shopping centre possible. Don’t worry guys, you get loot boxes not money so it’s not gambling

    • Could still be money anyway. Their reasoning for Lootboxes not being gambling is that you “can’t lose” so there’s no risk involved. Essentially they’re saying getting basically nothing for your money isn’t the same as actually getting nothing, so yeah, set up some pokies in schools that just give a small rock or a bit of dirt to 99.999999999% of your customers – it’s not gambling according to ESRB so you’re all good.

      • If you don’t get the item you wanted then you have lost. Everything else are partial rewards. I don’t know if partial rewards from pokies machines have been outlawed yet but I know there was an effort to get them banned because partial rewards are more addictive than straight forward ordinary losses.

        In a world of paid-for loot boxes the loser is you.

    • Yeah that’s called a lucky dip machine and kids have played them for many years. You’re a bit late.

  • It applies to additional levels and season passes, really? This seems like such a pointless label now. As said in the above text this will just be put on every game now and does nothing to highlight the issues.

  • They’re clearly watering down the gambling aspect by bundling it with all of the less dodgy shit they’ve proliferated.

    I really hope this won’t put the actual issue to bed, but it is disgustingly shrewd.

  • Their argument is that’ Parents don’t care’ which is pretty shit as an excuse. I want to know how they worded the questions. That’s the key here. What are the EXACT questions they asked?

  • Ah yes, the age old “put a sticker on it” solution. Especially relevant in this age of digital distribution. /s

    I am curious how this is actually defined… “As long as you can buy something through a game’s menu” – does this count menu items that direct you to the platform’s store page? What about virtual currency purchases? What if the game quietly puts virtual currency on the store with no direct link to its purchase in the game? So many potential loopholes for an already fairly obsolete solution.

    • Pretty sure that Sony already marks games ‘contains in game purchases’ or similar on the PS Store. The ESRB is only proposing to extend this to physical games at retail. It’s something, but it’s probably the least the ESRB could do and still be doing ‘something’.

      • I know it’s only boxed copies, I’m just curious how it defines “an in-game option to purchase extra content” to determine which games get the label. But nevermind – the fact that they’re including things like season passes means it is basically any game for which extra content can be purchased… which means it’s going to provide even less meaningful information than “contains IAPs.”

  • so whats to stop them form not having that feature when release getting the rating then adding it as a day 1 update?

  • Whatever complaints you have against this progression is due to the fact that the arguments were ill-focused and poorly made in the lead up. Welcome to the modern age of internet communities, “We don’t want loot boxes” because of BF2 even though we’ve had them for years and it’s been ok, like in CS:GO, where you can win boxes and then have to buy keys which I personally find incredibly insidious.

    On the other hand, micro-transactions and in total how all these payment aspects affect the development and design of a game are glossed over.

    Win some, lose some, thank the idiots everywhere.

  • Its amazing how technicalities matter. To use a different field, I’m a tournament poker player. Don’t play cash games very often (only when I’m travelling for some bigger tournament), but do play tournaments most weeks.

    Difference between the two is that tournament chips don’t have value, and you cant cash them out when you want, so ultimately its not gambling. In effect, its a test of luck and skill, no different to a fishing competition.

    That doesn’t pass the pub test though, because every other aspect of the game screams gambling. So to the common person, they aren’t going to buy into the technical truth, and conflate the two into the one product. Which is completely understandable.

    Loot boxes are somewhere in that same ballpark. Technically, they may not be actually gambling, but they sure as hell share a lot of characteristics. Pay money, get a randomised reward with different real or social values… Sure looks like gambling to me.

    I don’t actually think theres much debate over that to be honest. I think the bigger issue is that you have to draw a line somewhere, and its not easy to decide where that line should be. Technically SMB3 has gambling in it, but its clearly not what we need to block.

    Where do you draw that line without being too over protective?

    • The thing with loot boxes is I see them in exactly the same light as a collectable card game like Magic or a lucky dip machine that might give you a Gundam or might give you a Hello Kitty you don’t want. These things are also gambling your money on an outcome, but you still get something for the purchase. It’s a very different situation to a traditional bet and I’m not entirely sure how they can deal with it outside of clearly stating “you will receive a random reward for this online purchase” which is already 100% understood by the customer.

      • There’s physical barriers that reduce the problem for lucky dip machines and collectible cards, whereas lootboxes are infinite and allow you to gamble way more money in a much shorter time.

      • I think the anger comes from the psychological tomfoolery used to entice players to buy a loot box.

        That isn’t at play with cards or lucky dips.

        So really, it isn’t the gambling causing the problem. It’s them pushing us to gamble where it stinks.

        • Yeah agreedo, but I think that’s more of a predatory marketing deal rather than gambling. Just ban on game purchases with no set outcome imo.

    • I think the bigger differentiator here is that game companies have absolutely employed every psychological tool developed specifically to improve the return on pokies. Right down to the flashing lights and repetitive jingle.

      They’re treating it like gambling, then using every loophole in massively outdated laws to skirt regulation.

      Tournament poker is like magic the gathering in comparison.

      • Yeah, I get that and agree 100%. I’m most definitely NOT defending the game companies here. Its predatory, and aimed at separating the gamer from their money, and not by helping them be entertained. Pubs clubs and casinos have been doing it for decades.

        I use the poker example because its something most here wouldn’t be so exposed to so easier to separate. To most, theres no difference in the aspects, but to someone who plays, the psychological difference is massive. I’m less nervous playing a $1m tournament this weekend (more likely end up $2m) than I would be taking $300 to a cash table.

        I worry that because everyone here is a gamer, they’re caught up in the details a little too much. Lootboxes and microtransactions by themselves aren’t wrong, they can work, and often do. Destiny 2 gets it right for example. Its one of the few things they haven’t stuffed up, but because they’re dolled out at a reasonable rate for free theres never a compelling urge to spend money on them.

        But they’re still there, lurking in the background for those that choose to buy them. Should the game be penalised just because they’re there?

        So as you say, its the predatory nature that’s the problem. Where is that line? I’d say right around where Destiny 2 sits myself, its lootboxes are a great balance between profit and player satisfaction. But I wouldn’t want it to go any further, and start having necessary exclusives hidden inside.

        I think the warning that there are in game purchases is a pretty good place to start. At least the parent should be aware of that risk.

        • Yeah, but if a warning on the box said “uses gambling industry r&d to trigger your brain like a pokie” instead of “this game has dlc”, it would be a bit more useful.

          I know a couple of people who are currently “in remission” from blowing their life on gambling, and the way some games dangle loot boxes is akin to setting up a mini bar in the corner of an AA meeting.

          It might not sway you personally, but game companies are targeting the vulnerable. I don’t like that.

          • Psychological tricks are used in all industries if we push for warnings about it for loot boxes do we do it for everything else?
            Warning macdonalds uses colours to increase appetite.
            Warning Coles layout stores to make you buy more unnecessary items.
            Etc etc.

          • Don’t get me wrong, I think something is needed. Its just seems so relatively innocuous compared to the classic problem gambling issues that we wont see a straight up solution immediately.

            There are also potential bigger picture issues that could happen as well, mainly around other forms of online gambling. There are incredibly strict laws around it (particularly in the US), and the gambling sites would love a precedent that loosens those laws up.

            I don’t know what the answer is myself. Even good examples like Destiny 2 are bordering on pay to win, and still target vulnerable players. But this is a start.

      • Independent of whether loot crates are bad, gambling is bad, whatever other issues are raised on this topic, ‘psychological tricks’ is one I object to being raised as nefarious. The entire premise of video games is to use psychological tools to encourage you to keep playing, and the entire discipline of game design is based around figuring out what the game can do to elicit particular responses from players. Flashing lights and fanfare aren’t unique to gambling, Super Mario Bros has flashy fireworks and fanfare music when you hit the flag at the end of the level; Final Fantasy games are famous for the victory music, which is basically a jingle designed for you to associate it with success or reward through progression.

        Psychological tools or tricks are an integral part of games and really shouldn’t be demonised. They can be used or abused the same as any other technique but they’re not bad in and of themselves.

  • “…We think it’s a fun way to acquire virtual items for use within the game.” Just reading that statement made me retch a little bit. Even the people that rate/outline/categorize the content of modern games are trying to spin micro-transactions in a positive way. Makes the whole perspective of the industry feel tainted by this stuff, like its a badge of honour for devs to resist or to promote further financial investment in a reasonable/fair manner.

  • Would be a shame if someone were to add loot boxes in a patch, say, after the boxed copies had shipped…

  • Game put on shelves without the sticker. Day 1 patch adds miscrotransactions, too often review copies hide these mechanics… or how long can a developer hold out by not decmaring it has/has not inapp purchases.

    Do they have to declare it before pre-order sales go online?

    Because even if they declare it as early as posdible, it is so vague the companies will be e for weeks… that to avoid difficult sales they would do everythinvg around the guidelines to avoid it… faster than Blizzard avoid Chinas Odd Disclosure Policy.

  • While this is step in the right direction I would like to see game companies required to state the maximum amount you can spend to unlock all the game has to offer. Eg. If a game has a single expansion It’s tells you on the front of the box that it costs $25 or if you can just keep buying more and more loot boxes it tells you you could spend an unlimited amount. This would definitely be understandable by everyone.

  • I think people are so focused on how to define loot boxes, and how they should/shouldn’t be regulated, that they forget that it’s just another mile marker on this trip that’s taking us nowhere good. I knew that when DLC/season passes started to become a big thing that the publishers wouldn’t stop there. At the AAA level, gaming doesn’t feel like it has much of a soul left, just that it’s a giant money making machine with particular ‘winning formulas’. It’s very rare that I find games these days that move and inspire me as much as the games of old. I feel like that passion to make unique and interesting titles that push boundaries and try something new has just been replaced by corporate greed that reigns in creativity because it’s too much of a gamble (how ironic to use that word), and that it won’t make as much money as games as a service/micro transactions/loot boxes/season passes, etc. Shareholder meetings and talks of ROI are all that matter to the people in charge now.

    • I’m on the other side of the cash/tournament poker divide. Cash poker I’m much more likely to come away with most of my money or perhaps even double it if I was lucky. A tournament I’m almost guaranteed to lose it all.

    • This is what happens when executives are paid so obscenely. They are given a target for their bonus, screw the pooch, get the target in the short term, then rack off to another role to do the same.

  • So in otherwords just the bare minimum to make them look like they are doing something without actually doing anything. This still gives companies like EA free reign to put in exploitative microtransaction freely. The government really should enact legislation that requires companies to disclose drop chances.

  • That’s useless. I just want buyers to know if it’s pay for advantage (meaning the game will be grindfest) or loot box bullshit.

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