U.S., Senator and Democrat from New Hampshire, Maggie Hassan, managed to question and gain support from the Federal Trade Commission Commissioners about investigating the possibility of predatory practices regarding loot boxes in premium-priced video games.
The news was made available through a video that was uploaded Senator Hassan’s YouTube channel, where over the course of four minutes she inquiries of the FTC board’s willingness to investigate predatory loot boxes in premium priced games. All four members of the committee unequivocally stated “Yes”.
An investigation, however, does not mean sanctioned actions. This means more deliberations and more steps in the bureaucratic process in order to determine what the next step would be from regulatory institutions.
However, Senator Hassan did not stop there. According to a report that Blues picked up from Glixel, Hassan carried through with sending the letter to the ESRB asking them about adding warning labels to video game boxes and where the ESRB label appears for digitally distributed titles, informing parents about whether or not the game contains premium loot boxes.
“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.
“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. 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.”
Previously the ESRB hand-waved away any sort of need to address premium loot boxes by stating that they were not gambling since people always gained something from the loot box. Of course, if you’re given free drinks at a casino it doesn’t automatically mean you’re no longer gambling at a casino just because you gained something for your efforts.
The ESRB did respond to Senator Hassan, stating…
“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.”
The ESRB likely doesn’t want to upset the publishers, which is exactly what will happen if higher ratings are used for games containing loot boxes. As noted in the Glixel article, the Superdata market report on industry revenue saw that microtransactions make up for $27 billion out of the total $35 billion dollar intake in the U.S., in 2017. Full product based releases (just the games alone) only accounted for $8 billion in 2017.
Essentially, publishers wouldn’t be happy if the ESRB had a warning label on boxes that could deter parents from purchasing a game that contains premium loot boxes.
Regardless of what the ESRB says or what publishers don’t want to happen, Eurogamer is reporting that Hawaii Senator Chris Lee has stated that more than half of the states in the U.S., are currently investigating loot box regulation.
So now the questions become: Will the ESRB fold to the Senator and add a warning label to games containing premium loot boxes? Will publishers self-regulate (even though they’ve never self-regulated since microtransactions have come into play)? Or will the FTC and government officials have to mandate legislation to prevent premium loot boxes from being sold to minors?