ESRB tackles loot boxes with a new 'In-Game Purchases' label

The ESRB has announced that it will roll out a new warning label for physical game releases indicating to consumers that the game will contain some form of in-game purchases. The agency described the new label as a "sensible approach" to keeping parents and gamers informed, and said that it will begin appearing on boxed games and websites in the near future. 

"The videogame industry is evolving and innovating continually, as is the ESRB rating system. ESRB's goal is to ensure that parents have the most up-to-date and comprehensive tools and their disposal to help them decide which games are appropriate for their children," ESRB president Patricia Vance said in a statement

"With the new In-Game Purchases interactive element coming to physical games, parents will know when a game contains offers for players to purchase additional content. Moreover, we will be expanding our efforts to educate parents about the controls currently at their disposal to manage in-game spending before their kids press 'Start'." 

The label is similar to the "Digital Purchases" notice that currently applies to digital and mobile games on the Microsoft Store, Google Play, and some other digital storefronts, and will apply to any game that offers in-game items for purchase with real money. That includes bonus levels, skins, "surprise items" like loot boxes or mystery rewards, music, in-game currency, subscriptions, season passes, and upgrades that enable extra features or eliminate ads.   

And therein lies the problem: It covers everything. The Far Cry 5 season pass, the Prey soundtrack, the $800 hucked down the drain over a wild Battlefront 2 weekend; there's no differentiation between them, and so the rating becomes so ubiquitous as to risk being almost useless. Vance addressed that concern in a conference call earlier today, explaining that the ESRB is trying to avoid "overwhelming" parents with too much detail. 

"I'm sure you're all asking why we aren't doing something more specific to loot boxes," she said (via GamesIndustry). "And I'll tell you we've done a lot of research over the past several weeks and months, particularly among parents. What we learned is that a large majority of parents don't know what a loot box is, and 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, but to make sure we're capturing loot boxes but also other in-game transactions." 

"Parents need simple information. We can't overwhelm them with a lot of detail. We need to be clear, concise, and make it easy for them. We have not found that parents are differentiating between a lot of these different mechanics. They just know there might be something in the game they can spend money on." 

Vance expressed similar points in a letter to US Senator Maggie Hassan, who called on the ESRB to take action against loot boxes earlier this month. It too focuses largely on the parental control element, stating that 91 percent of parents don't allow their children to make in-game purchases without permission, but also noting that there is "very low awareness of loot boxes among parents." 

She also noted that the ESRB's research "did not encounter any loot boxes that specifically target children," and reiterated its position that loot boxes do not constitute a form of gambling, but are instead more akin to baseball cards. 

"Loot boxes are an optional feature in certain games that provide the player a fun way to acquire virtual items for use within the game itself," she wrote. "Most of the time, these items are cosmetic in nature. They are sometimes earned as an award to the player; other times they can be purchased. But at all times, they are optional." 

That position may be why the ESRB's response is framed as protecting children rather than consumers: To suggest that adult consumers need protection is to admit that there might be some element of sketchiness in loot boxes. It might be enough to mollify the political side of the equation, at least for now, but I suspect that consumers who have actually driven the furor over loot boxes may not be satisfied.

At least one game publisher is happy with the move, however.