The ESRB’s response to loot box controversy is not good enough

Feature article

The game industry has been through the wringer a bit over the past few months, hasn’t it? Late last year, the release of the now infamous Star Wars: Battlefront II really brought loot boxes and general microtransactions to the fore. Consumers are a bit more aware of monetisation tactics. Many are becoming more discerning in their choices. The controversies have become so raging that politicians worldwide are speaking out against what is being labelled as predatory practices.

Upon this backdrop, the ESRB, who are an official body who assign age and content warning on video games, decided to chime in:

It should be said that this campaign by the ESRB is a targeted move to assist parents with their child’s purchasing desires. The main proposal is a label indicating that a game has in-game purchases. Information regarding the game’s transactions and purchasable items will also be put on the ESRB’s website.

This is a great idea. The ESRB, whilst not perfect, is surely better than politicians at regulating the video games industry. Not to mention that this is already a similar issue to ratings on mature games. Either way, it’s a great step. But there are holes in the plan as we currently know it.

NO NUANCE

The most obvious flaw is that a blanket label doesn’t account for the spectrum of gaming monetisation.

Star Wars: Battlefront II is a pretty excessive case. Content that was available in the previous game is now locked behind a paywall. Items that could be bought in the game gave players a winning edge over the competition, so newcomers had to pony up or be at a serious disadvantage. Generally, a pretty deplorable system set to suck already-paying customers dry.

But a lot of creators aren’t that greedy. Resident Evil 7, for example, has a much more consumer friendly model. Upon opening up the game players are told of the game’s downloadable content (DLC). You can then choose to look at the DLC right then and there, get a reminder next time you play, or just outright say no and never see it again. What’s more, the DLC was an added extra, rather than something carved out of the game. A player can completely ignore all DLC and still have a fantastic time with the base game.

However, this labelling system would see fit to tar both games with the same brush. With only one label to describe all forms of post-purchase monetisation, there’s no delineation of the purchase tactics. DLC isn’t a “minor” purchase and loot boxes aren’t “major” purchases. It’s curious that a rating board aren’t able to differentiate. Their job of specifying if a game is appropriate for children or teens or adults has been achieved and yet here they are slapping on a binary “yes purchases” label.

There’s also a chance with most modern games using DLC or loot boxes or some other monetisation method that this label would get slapped on everything. Sure it might get awareness out, but a label put on everything is a label that quickly loses any kind of impact.

INFORMATION UNDERLOAD

One reason the ESRB seems reluctant to put a lot of information on labels is simple: parents don’t understand. Why tell a parent that they should watch out for games with loot boxes if they have no idea what that is? The pretty obvious weakness in this argument is that is kind of their job. If needed, call them random chance drops or something. Surely in the vast vocabulary of our language, we can say something that involves chance and is paid for by a consumer.

Most people call that gambling, but I’ll leave that to another day.

Now, of course, the counter-argument is that this information will be put on the ESRB’s website. Although this assumes that a parent would look at the label and know to check the site. Another such assumption is about the information included. In fact, truth be told I myself have never checked the ESRB’s site. Reasonable giving that Australia’s video games use a separate rating board. Suffice to say I was taken aback by the severe lack of any information present on a game.

It’s fair to acknowledge that Australia’s system similarly has fairly sparse information (even though it’s considerably more accessible as it is on the rating label). But surely this calls into question the effectiveness of a proposed in-game purchases section. Is it just going to say “has loot boxes” or “has DLC”? It’s a step up from the miasmic “purchases” tag, but a rather small one.

The iOS store is probably a good counterpoint here. Supporters of the system site the Apple Store. Every application with in-app purchases must list so on the store page. However, there is a pronounced discrepancy in the information. Scroll down the page of an app with purchasable items and you will find a section that lists all of these add-ons. If I wanted to make some Latin beats in the music making App Beathawk, I know what I pay for: $14.99 for the app, $2.99 for a Latin percussion add-on. Meanwhile, I have no confidence in the ESRB taking these steps.

KEEP THEM HONEST

Let’s bring the Battlefront II punching bag out one last time. It’s a pretty bad case of in-game purchases after all. Except, it technically isn’t. Let’s consider the history.

Battlefront II started its downward spiral when it was in Beta. People saw the game for what it really was and whipped up a frenzy of controversy. It was a bad time for EA, and eventually the sheer weight of angry fans, pressure from Disney, and other factors got to them. In what many consider a victory, however temporary as it may be, EA removed the microtransactions mere hours before Battlefront II’s launch. Whilst they have yet to reintroduce them, they seemed intent on reworking the system and bringing back the microtransactions.

So, you are a member of the ESRB. The question is simple: Does Star Wars Battlefront II have in-game purchases? Suddenly the question becomes harder to answer. Battlefront II is not the only case. Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare 2 (another EA title) courted some controversy by adding microtransaction into the game a considerable amount of time after launch. Essentially it looked as though developers tried to gain an audience of paying customers and then added on additional payments to squeeze more juice. Not a good look.

Even if the labelling has the intention of informing customers, and perhaps dissuading them from certain games, this is a big loophole. This is why the labelling system needs some kind of repercussions if it hopes to create worthwhile change.

All in all it’s good to see the discussion of loot boxes not going into the hands of politicians. But this is not a good way to help parents make informed decisions about their children’s video game purchases. The loot box issue is far too big for this half-hearted measure. For all the people out there, nervous about these addict-creating monetisation strategies, we need to do some real work. I personally don’t want to see loot boxes banned outright, and I hope to see the labelling strategy work. But based on the scarce information we have, there is definitely more work to be done.