Loot Boxes in Video Games

U.S. Senator Asks ESRB to Study Loot Boxes in Video Games

Let’s talk about video game loot boxes some more because why not? As a gamer who plans on opening a loot box or two tonight, I find the topic relevant to my interests and would subscribe to my own newsletter about it. In this round of loot box discussion, United States Senator Maggie Hassan (D – N.H.) has written a letter to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), urging the organization to take a close look at the use of loot boxes in video games and consider developing policies to govern their usage in the gaming industry.

Loot boxes in the game Fortnite take the form of llama pinatas. And they talk.
Image credit: fortnite.wikia.com

If you aren’t a gamer or haven’t read my other articles about loot boxes, let me quickly explain. Loot boxes are treasure chests of sorts that can be earned or purchased in many video games. The contents of the loot boxes are randomly generated, with most items being very common, while some – typically the most desirable – being quite rare. Players know what COULD be in the loot box, but they don’t know what actually WILL be in one until it is opened. Sometimes, players are thrilled to get something rare and exciting, though most of the time, the items are nothing to write home about, even if they are useful.

In some games, like the ever-popular Overwatch, loot boxes only contain cosmetic items. In other games, though, loot boxes contain items that help a player in the game. They could be a souped-up weapon, a special ability that gives them an advantage, or maybe in-game currency they can use to buy other items. And, as mentioned, loot boxes can often be earned by playing the game (this is how I get them in Overwatch), purchased with real money (most games, including Overwatch, have this as an option), or purchased with in-game currency (which itself can often be bought with real money).

Loot boxes can be a lot of fun, but they can also feel like gambling, as they are effectively slot machines (albeit slot machines where you always win something). It can be easy for gamers to be tempted to open loot box after loot box – spending money in the process – in an effort to uncover that one item that they really want. I don’t spend real money on loot boxes, but I certainly know the feeling of wanting that one cool costume for a character that is only available in loot boxes during a limited time event and the anticipation I feel when the loot box is opening, as maybe THIS is the time it appears in a starburst of joy.

In her letter to the ESRB, Sen. Hassan wrote, in part:

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. Recently the World Health Organization classified “gaming disorder” as a unique condition in its recent draft revision of the 11th International Classification of Diseases. 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 utilized in physical copies of electronic games.

That call to action in the last sentence does make some sense and is echoed by recent legislation proposed in Hawaii.

“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,” Sen. Hassan continued. “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.”

Sen. Hassan concluded with additional requests:

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.

As a gamer, I can certainly support the sentiment of the final sentence. I can’t stand loot boxes that contain items that give players in-game advantages, as they feel mandatory, turning the games into “pay-to-win” games, especially if I have already paid money to buy the game. “Ethical” design could be argued, but the use of loot boxes is often just a lazy way to generate player interest, rather than making the game itself more attractive. And as a parent, the ability to disable all in-game purchases is always welcomed.

PC Gamer’s Andy Chalk reached out to the ESRB for comment on Sen. Hassan’s letter and the organization did reply, seeming to be open to at least considering her concerns:

We received Senator Hassan’s letter and appreciate her confidence in and support of the ESRB rating system. For more than two decades we have earned the trust of parents around the country by helping them make informed decisions about the games their children play.

As the industry evolves, so does our rating system, and we will continue to make enhancements to ensure parents continue to be well-informed. We will also continue to provide information about additional tools, including parental control guides, that help parents set spending and time limits and block potentially inappropriate games based on the ESRB-assigned age rating.

Cover Image credit: us.battle.net


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