ESRB and FTC Should Act Against “Predatory” Loot Boxes Says US Senator

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Feb 15, 2018
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It seems 2018 is going to be a make or break year for loot boxes. Anger over the implementation of loot boxes in games like Star Wars Battlefront II has died down a bit, but lawmakers the world over have latched onto the controversy and aren’t likely to let the issue drop. Hawaii just introduced a series of bills that could bar those under 21 from buying games with randomized purchase systems, and now US Senator Maggie Hassan is pushing for both the ESRB and US Federal Trade Commission to address the issue.

The New Hampshire senator recently wrote a letter to the ESRB, urging them to review their policies regarding “predatory” loot boxes…

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“The prevalence of in-game microtransactions and 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 harm is real. […] 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 [games].

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 the account the potential harm these types of microtransactions may have on children. I also urge the board to examine whether the design and marketing approach to loot boxes in games geared towards children is being conducted in an ethical and transparent way that adequately protects the developing minds of young children from predatory practices.”

The ESRB has issued a response that hints they will indeed be making some changes to their system.

“We received Senator Hassan’s letter and appreciate her confidence in and support of the ESRB rating system. […] 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.”

Hassan also is a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which provides oversight for the Federal Trade Commission, which, in turn, has power over the sale of all consumer products in the US. Hassan recently asked four FTC nominees whether they believe “children being addicted to gaming – and activities like loot boxes that might make them more susceptible to addiction – is a problem that merits attention?” All the nominees said they’d tackle the issue if they were confirmed by the committee.

At this point, it seems like some form of US loot box regulations are inevitable. Perhaps this could have been avoided if the industry and ESRB had moved quickly and decisively to self-regulate loot boxes, but they dragged their feet, and so here we are.

What are your thoughts? Can the gaming industry and ESRB be trusted to handle this issue themselves, or does the law need to step in?

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