The Entertainment Software Rating Board is the self-regulatory association responsible for appraising the content of video games in the United States. It’s their ratings which determine the age suitability of video games that retailers across the country use to determine whether or not they should sell Murder Quest IV: Maximum Blood Sex to your kid sister.
With pressure mounting on the issue of microtransactions, loot boxes and in-game purchases, the ESRB responded by announcing a new “in-game purchases” label that will be stickered onto physical copies of video games to inform consumers whether or not a video game has alternative means of extracting money from them.
This label is comparable to the ones that started to appear on games when interactive online play became more commonplace. Such labels were necessary to remind players that although a game might be rated T for Teen, online multiplayer might expose them to the kind of profanity and abuse beyond the scope of such a rating, and was thus worth noting.
Unfortunately, the labeling idea is so broadly conceived that it applies to way too many games. While the ongoing loot box controversies center around games like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War and Call of Duty: WWII, it also means that games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 will be receiving the label too, even if their in-game purchases are very different.
That’s because the ESRB's proposed criteria doesn’t distinguish between loot boxes, cosmetic options and card packs as well the myriad forms of premium currency that publishers have developed to determine the value of such digital goods. That’s a terrible oversight, as it becomes incumbent upon consumers to research and study these in-game purchases and how they differ.
There is after all, a substantial difference between Overwatch’s loot boxes which are available for real money but don’t guarantee any specific rewards and Fortnite: Battle Royale which sells in-game currency to buy cosmetic items. Furthermore, not all loot boxes are created equal. Unlike Overwatch, the loot boxes of Destiny 2 – called ‘engrams’ – occasionally reward players with in-game benefits that give them a very incentivizing value.
The scope of the new label would reach even further to include a game like Horizon: Zero Dawn, a single-player game that lets you buy additional story content in-game. While this sounds like nit picking on our end, it's important to remember that the ESRB's proposal does give the appearance of the video game industry doing something without actually doing anything.
The ESRB is the video game industry's largest lobbying group, and this measure helps vent some of the pressure the industry faces from lawmakers around the world, who are all thinking about ways to legislate or tax these games for their seemingly predatory and/or anti-consumer practices. The ESRB is basically claiming this label will educate consumers when it actually does nothing of the sort.
On a conference call with reporters the morning of this announcement, ESRB president Patricia Vance told Ars Technica that "a large majority of parents don't know what a loot box is" and that parents' biggest concern is their children spending money in games, not necessarily how they're doing it. "It's very important for us not to harp on loot boxes per se, but make sure we're capturing loot boxes but also other types of purchases," she said.
But until the wheels truly turn against the game industry in Washington, it’s unlikely the ESRB will go any further. According to a report from Kotaku, Vance said "We don’t believe [loot boxes] constitute gambling. We think it’s a fun way to acquire virtual items for use within the game.”