The ESRB, the USA’s videogame classifications board, has announced a mandatory warning label for all games accepting in-game payment. The “in-game purchases” label will apply to any game accepting real money, no matter how small the amount or what it is for.
If you’re thinking that’ll apply to almost every game these days, you’re not wrong.
The move comes in the wake of growing pressure from consumers, politicians, media, and concerned industry groups over the random nature of loot boxes, and their similarities to gambling. The ESRB and its parent organisation, the Electronic Software Association, have previously stated they do not consider loot boxes to be gambling.
In that stance they are hiding behind the legal definition, putting fingers in their ears as domestic and foreign politicians call for more inquiry, and stubbornly citing that no official USA body recognises it as gambling yet. They’re either naive or negligent to think a vague label about microtransactions covers the unique nature of paid random reward schemes.
Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB, said:
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.
Rather than recognise loot boxes as predatory and inform parents, the ESRB is content to understate the issue, incorrectly ushering it under the umbrella of “in-game purchases.”
Except… it’s not really a purchase, is it?
If you see a skin and you buy that skin, that’s a purchase. If you like a character so you buy that character, that’s a purchase. If you put up $2.50 without knowing what you’re getting in return? That’s gambling.
And what if the aesthetic and mechanical systems underlying this exchange also mimic real, literal slot machines and roulette? What if the bleeps and bloops and random reward schedules were calculated to extract maximum return, without regulation, effectively creating Baby’s First Skinner Box?
There’s a better word for what you’re talking about, ESRB. It’s gambling. These might be uncharted waters for industry self-regulators, but you’re erring on the side of impotence.
Possible Points of Optimism
The vague language of “in-game purchases” is defined by the ESRB as any opportunity to pay more money in-game. It doesn’t matter if that’s for skins, content, or whatever else. Anything you whip out a credit card for or use store-bought credits for will trigger the label.
Moving forward, we’ll need that kind of vague language to curtail loopholes that publishers use to evade gambling regulation. An example is having you buy “gems” instead of outright using your fiat currency to gamble. The argument they’d make is because you’re gambling with a virtual item — and not real money — it shouldn’t be subject to gambling law.
Legislation is already woefully slow on the uptake here, and these loopholes and business models outpace it. We’ll need strong and all-encompassing language to make sure there are no cynical workarounds.
What’s in a Label
As for the label itself? If we’re talking about informing parents of what their kids are playing, it’s actually a good idea — it just needs to be a different label.
Parents might not know what “loot boxes” are, but they sure know what gambling is. It’s the ESA’s — and ESRB’s — reluctance to call loot boxes what they are that holds them back from informing and protecting consumers from this industry vice.
Without the means (or will) to educate consumers on what a “loot box” is, and no doubt petrified of denting a significant portion of yearly takings for some major publishers, the ESRB is left with the option of downplaying the industry’s number one ethical issue — not exactly the action of a consumer protection organisation.
As we’ve noted before, the actual word “gambling” carries legal ramifications. It’s officially adults only. It spells retail death. Other systems of random product like Magic: The Gathering cards get swept up in the crossfire. We understand those complications. It’s up to the ESRB to find a solution that informs and protects consumers.
“In-game purchases” doesn’t come close to informing the consumer of a system mechanically designed to prey on the weaknesses of our behavioural psychology. But politicians, critics, and consumers are becoming more aware of what developers have always known as the dark side of their profession.
If the ESRB doesn’t do its job, it’ll start to be done for them, and that’s not a place any of us wants to be. With videogames once again being falsely accused for gun violence in the public sphere, it’s more important than ever to show ourselves as a responsible, self-regulating industry.