The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rates video games in a similar fashion to the way the MPAA rates movies. It uses keywords that are updated over time, like "violence," "nudity," and "smoking." Updating a 2018 decision to broadly label games with in-game purchases, the organization will now add the parenthetical “includes random items” to certain games under this umbrella. The wording is meant to target loot boxes while not allowing other kinds of randomized purchases to slip through the cracks.
And, frankly, it's about time. Loot boxes and other random rewards are forms of dark patterns. Like gambling, they tap into the reward centers of the brain and can trick users into spending more than they should or playing for longer than they should in the hopes of the dopamine kick that comes from getting lucky. The fact that they're allowed in games aimed at children is reprehensible.
The knives are out — When the ESRB first added the “in-game purchases” label, it was under pressure from U.S. lawmakers. The label folded in games with more straightforward purchases like upgrades and did nothing to single out the addictive nature of loot boxes. These microtransactions create a dangerous loop for (particularly young) players and are arguably more psychologically damaging than violence and nudity.
A small coalition of heavy-hitters beat the ESRB to the punch last summer with a more targeted move. Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Blizzard, and a few other publishers started sharing disclosures regarding the rarity of loot boxes. In September 2019, the U.K. Parliament went as far as recommending loot boxes should be classified as gambling.
A blanket ban would work, too — Though the ESRB's move is better late than never and will hopefully help gamers and their parents make better purchasing decisions (though, the ESRB admits many parents may not even know what a loot box is,) this is still extraordinarily late in the day for a regulatory body to take a stance on a well-documented issue. Moreover, arguably, given the growing research about the potential problems of loot boxes and related mechanisms, perhaps they shouldn't be allowed at all, or at the very least should be confined to titles aimed exclusively at adults.