The regulatory organization tasked with reviewing video game content — and prescribing age-based ratings for consumers — is introducing new parameters to its system. The aim of these new guidelines is to make parents, and consumers in general, more aware of games that include loot boxes and other forms of randomized in-game purchases.
In a blog posted on April 13, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) officially announced the latest change to its rating process and warning labels. The ESRB had been alerting consumers to the presence of interactive elements in physical games via In-Game Purchases and Users Interact notices dating back to 2018. However, the rise of micro-transactions in games — and the increasing inclusion of controversial loot boxes in AAA titles — ostensibly warranted a more targeted scope of review.
The new In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items) interactive element is designed to let consumers know when a game allows players the ability to purchase additional, randomized items with real money while remaining in-game. The ESRB attempted to clarify when and where this new label will be affixed to particular games in the blog announcement.
“In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items) will be assigned to all games that include purchases with any randomized elements, including loot boxes, gacha games, item or card packs, prize wheels, treasure chests, and more. Games that have the In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items) notice may also include other non-randomized paid elements.”
Micro-transactions and loot boxes, specifically, have been a hot-button issue within the gaming industry in recent years. Loot boxes have been investigated by governments as a form of gambling due to the exchange of real money and the element of chance or luck involved with them. Many countries have even introduced legislation to monitor and regulate the implementation of loot boxes within games.
The ESRB had previously come under fire for its seemingly casual approach to loot boxes and the dangers they pose as a form of gambling, particularly to younger players. Following the original introduction of the catch-all In-Game Purchases tag, Forbes‘ Paul Tassi called the organization’s failure to differentiate loot boxes in their warning “a clear punt” by the organization.
In recent years, titles like Star Wars: Battlefront 2 have been sharply criticized by fans and industry observers alike for the manner in which randomized items assigned via micro-transactions were incorporated. In that particular instance, EA’s then-chief design officer, Patrick Söderlund, eventually offered an apology during an interview with The Verge in response to the outcry.
With the ESRB finally succumbing to the pressure it faced following its initial pass at alerting consumers to the presence of loot boxes, consumers may find themselves more informed on the subject moving forward.