I work for Tabcorp, a prominent Australian company that runs multiple wagering and gambling products. I spend my time designing gambling products.
I‘m not a gambler, I don’t gamble. But I don’t think gambling is evil, and I think adults have the right to choose. I do think, however, that products like alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling require strict regulation from government and independent bodies.
I think that loot boxes are unequivocally a gambling product, but I also think they have their place in gambling. I think the responsibility to create responsible gambling products falls to both the developer and the publisher, and I think the definition of ‘responsible’ falls to the relevant rating boards and governments.
Everything here is my opinion, and may or may not reflect the views of my employer.
Earlier this week, the ESRB put out this statement:
An update on in-game purchases from your friends at ESRB: pic.twitter.com/pqmfJe0Ywz
— ESRB (@ESRBRatings) February 27, 2018
This comes as a response to the significant amount of criticism the ESRB has been getting from their complete lack of control around gambling mechanics (ie. loot boxes).
You might be pleased with the ESRB finally stepping up and rating microtransactions in games. After all, it’s about time. You’re wrong, though. This is a token reaction that proves the ESRB isn’t listening, and doesn’t understand the problem.
I work for one of the biggest gambling companies in the world. A lot of the time, it can feel like working on the Deathstar. Mitchell and Webb describe it well in their ‘Are we the baddies?’ sketch.
What differentiates the giant gambling conglomerate I work for, and the ESRB, is the following:
- One of us has significant resources dedicated to acting responsibly in our communities.
- One of us has government oversight that ensures objective regulation.
- One of us understands the issues that our industry causes, and openly seeks to combat these issues.
Any guesses as to who I’m talking about? Yeah, it’s not the ESRB (and it sure as hell isn’t EA). In fairness, there’s a difference — we’re a provider, not a rating board. But you would think that some of these rules would apply to a ratings board, no?
Here’s why this new in-game purchases label is, frankly, nonsense.
A lack of empathy and understanding
The ESRB claims that its mission is this:
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is the non-profit, self-regulatory body that assigns ratings for video games and apps so parents can make informed choices.
As a ratings board, the ESRB has an obvious inherent responsibility to understand the products it is rating. After all, they’re supposed to be the front line defense against consumer abuse.
However, this new 'In-Game Purchases' label completely missed the point. TotalBiscuit puts it well:
‘Our research indicates that most parents don’t understand what lootboxes are, which is why we’ve chosen not to tell them and be as vague as possible in the content of our new box warnings’ - the ESRB.
— TotalBiscuit. (@Totalbiscuit) February 27, 2018
It’s based on this completely unbelievable quote from ESRB president Patricia Vance (emphasis by me):
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.
I’m sure Patricia Vance is a smart person, but that’s an incredibly dumb statement.
The new label will affect any game with digital purchases. That means that Star Wars Battlefront 2 will get labelled in the exact same manner as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
One has gambling boxes that affect competitive gameplay. The other has fixed-price additional single-player content. Hell, this label will bundle in games who are selling a soundtrack with games that are literally casinos. What a stupid, stupid system.
— Skill Up currently reviewing: Kingdom Come (@SkillUpYT) February 27, 2018
Ironically, we already know the ESRB has completely no idea what they’re talking about: back in October, when asked if loot box mechanics constitute gambling, they made this silly statement:
We don’t believe it does. We think it’s a fun way to acquire virtual items for use within the game.
You can read more about it below, but the crux is this: They don’t think loot boxes are gambling because you always receive an item.
Over the past few weeks, as randomised loot boxes have dominated the conversation surrounding this spring's video games, there have been calls for the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to classify them as gambling in its back-of-the-box ratings. But the ESRB says that isn't going to happen -- because according to a spokesperson, loot boxes don't fit the bill.
They’re wrong. They’re so wrong.
To use the old adage, Dictionary.com says gambling is this: "To stake or risk money, or anything of value, on the outcome of something involving chance."
Sounds like a lootbox to me. In fact, I think there’s a strong argument to say that the fact you always get something makes them even more insidious, because there’s a good chance that the items you’re getting are useless or without value.
In traditional gambling, you know there’s a chance you will get nothing. For most people, they see the odds are stacked against them, and choose not to play. Loot boxes aren’t like this. Take Star Wars Battlefront 2 - you’ll always get something, but it’s probably total garbage.
If you are somehow still not convinced that the ESRB has no clue what they’re talking about (Or, worse, are feigning ignorance), take a look at this clip of Hawaiian state representative Chris Lee questioning an ESA (The parent company of the ESRB) representative:
It doesn't help the average consumer
Contrary to the vocal minority, parents do care about what games their kids are playing. I used to work for a prominent video game retailer, and I spoke to thousands of parents who are desperately trying to make the right choices. This is really hard - their kids are asking for Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, and their friends already have it, so there’s this immense pressure to acquiesce.
Digital games exacerbate the issue, where parents aren’t buying the end product. Whether it’s iTunes, the Play Store, Playstation Network, Xbox Live, whatever — the parent thinks they’re buying magical space points, not spins on a roulette wheel.
This label does nothing to inform a parent that the game includes gambling mechanics. They have to do their own research to find out if a game is selling cosmetic skins, gameplay enhancements, or loot boxes.
If @ESRBRatings actually cared about arming parents with information and protecting kids, it would require a separate content descriptor for blind pack purchases (loot boxes) and REQUIRE all games with them to post the odds of each prize in-game.
— David Dave (@Incisive_D) February 27, 2018
This issue isn’t limited to parents, by the way. Triple J’s Hack program recently ran a story about an adult consumer who spent over $50,000 on loot boxes in a mobile game as a way to cope with some seriously difficult personal circumstances.
Let me be absolutely clear: that behaviour is indicative of a very, very serious gambling addiction, and we are doing nothing about it.
It's time for regulation
There are lots of very easy ways to solve these issues, and I’m going to talk about those in a separate article. One thing is really clear though:
Companies are selling gambling products to anyone they want with no oversight or restrictions. Underage? No worries. Gambling addiction? Don’t ask, don’t tell.
EA is the poster child for the worst use of loot boxes, but they’re not the only ones. Video Game companies are teaching our kids to gamble, and in some cases, that it’s the only way to get ahead. And the ESRB doesn’t get it, or worse, doesn’t care.
One last thing
The ESRB is owned by the Entertainment Software Association. Have a look at the members of the ESA.
These companies pay a membership fee to the ESA, which in turn helps fund the ESRB. Is it really any surprise that the ESRB has been so completely apathetic to the lootbox issue when their paychecks are written by Activision, EA, Nexon, Tencent, Wargaming, and others?
Don’t think so.