U.S. Senator Asks ESRB To Re-Examine Loot Boxes

Yesterday, Senator Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, sent an open letter to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) urging it "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."

This comes four months after the ESRB said, as first reported by Kotaku, that it does not consider loot boxes to be a type of gambling.

Loot boxes, which allow you to spend either real or in-game currency in exchange for randomised rewards, were at the center of an internet firestorm last year thanks to their controversial implementation in games like Star Wars Battlefront II and Middle-earth: Shadow of War.

Australia's Telco Regulator Is Keeping An Eye On Loot Boxes

Earlier this week we heard from people within the Queensland and Victorian statutory gambling regulators about loot boxes, and whether they constitute gambling. Today we've got a third body to add to the list: the Australian Communications Media Authority (ACMA).

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Since then, pundits and now even politicians have spoken out about the ethical questions surrounding them.

"The prevalence of in-game micro-transactions, often referred to as 'loot boxes,' raises several concerns surrounding the use of psychological principles and enticing mechanics that closely mirror those often found in casinos and games of chance. The potential for harm is real," Hassan wrote.

She suggested that, at a minimum, games' ratings should indicate whether they contain loot boxes. She continued:

While there is robust debate over whether loot boxes should be considered gambling, the fact that they are both expensive habits and use similar psychological principles suggest loot boxes should be treated with extra scrutiny. At minimum, the rating system should denote when loot boxes are utilised in physical copies of electronic games.

To that end, I respectfully urge the ESRB 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. I also urge the board to examine whether the design and marketing approach to loot boxes in games geared toward children is being conducted in an ethical and transparent way that adequately protects the developing minds of young children from predatory practices.

Further, I urge the ESRB to consider working with the relevant stakeholders - including parents - to collect and publish data on how developers are using loot boxes, how widespread their use is, and how much money players spend on them.

Finally, I ask that you develop best practices for developers, such as ethical design, tools for parents to disable these mechanisms, or making them less essential to core gameplay.

Prior to sending the letter, Hassan had aired her concerns about game microtransactions in a separate Q&A session with Federal Trade Commission nominees at a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing.

Hassan asked four FTC nominees whether they would be willing to look at loot boxes as an issue. All of the nominees agreed that they'd be open to tackling the issue of loot boxes and one, who has two teenagers, said she's concerned about the amount of time kids spend playing games.

State legislators are tackling the loot box issue, too. Earlier this week, Sacramento, California Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D) and Hawaii State Representative Chris Lee (D) introduced five separate bills that would regulate loot boxes.

Quirk's and Lee's bills would require game manufacturers to disclose whether games have in-game purchases. Lee's bills would also make it illegal for kids under 21 to purchase games with randomised reward systems.

"As an elected official, we have an obligation to protect public health and safety," Lee told Kotaku in an interview last year. "In the same way gambling and drugs can be addictive — that's the same kind of chemical response in the brain that these kinds of predatory loot boxes are designed to elicit."

Although these bills have a long road ahead before potentially turning into laws, the Hawaii Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce yesterday heard one of them and recommended that it be passed. This bill, HB2727, would require that video games come with disclosure labels if they contain loot boxes.

Various experts gave testimony to the committee, including a representative for the video game industry's lobbyist group, the Entertainment Software Association.

"We strongly encourage members of the Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce to vote against further consideration of this legislation," said the ESA's rep, "and work closely with the ESA and ESRB to gain a better understanding of the video game industry and its most valuable asset - its passionate gamer community."

The bill has a long way to go before it is passed in Hawaii - to become law, it must go through several more committees, receive hearing from the state senate, and then be signed by Hawaii's governor.


Comments

    While I understand the goal is to protect children, shouldn't the onus be on parents to (a) educate themselves on what games their children are playing and whether these contain loot boxes; and (b) not let their children have access to means of making in-app purchases (e.g. credit card linked accounts)?

    Don't get me wrong: I think loot boxes are predatory and that they should be banned, but there seems to be a fair bit of buck-passing going on.

      I think parents should be able to trust that a game rated for children is safe for them to play without the parent needing to play the game themselves. That's what rating s are for after all.

      I agree on credit card access though. None of my kid's accounts on any platform have a card linked to them. If they want something they have to come to me and ask.

      Part of that implies patents have been given that information to make that decision. In many cases games have refused to give details in loot boxes and have patched them in Day Zero patch style.

      Or have been added to game in a later patch without notifications or the option to restrict access through parent controls or refubd the game on principle that changing the business model after the sale is a basic breach of consumer rights.

      (a) educate themselves on what games their children are playing and whether these contain loot boxes

      That's mostly the point of the ESRB's rating system, to inform people what the game contains. That they have loot boxes should totally be included.

      not let their children have access to means of making in-app purchases (e.g. credit card linked accounts)?
      Nothing stopping kids from nicking their parents credit card details.

      Not going to lie, I was really into the Pokemon TCG back in the day to the point that when I went to the city card shop for the Pokemon TCG League, I'd often steal cash from my parents to buy more booster packs. Was it a scummy thing for me to do? Hell yeah.

      But now imagine opening a booster pack with all the bells and whistles designed explicitly to take advantage of psychology research to get people to buy more. Parents, hide your wallets.

    We strongly encourage members of the Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce to vote against further consideration of this legislation," said the ESA's rep, "and work closely with the ESA and ESRB to gain a better understanding of the video game industry and its most valuable asset - its passionate gamer community."

    Holy shit did this make my skin crawl.
    In case your wondering, I will translate from lobbyist.
    "We already paid a lot of money to make this go away and we have a lot more for those who play ball", said the owner of the ERSB, who was shackled and chained at his feet. "Let us explain just how much we can squeeze from these walking coin purses and how easily they kick up a fuss about something that can benefit us all....well except them really"
    *throws handfuls of cash at the
    Committee*

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