In a move that was expected to happen once the US government stepped into the fray, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a collective of publishers, game studios, and platform owners, has announced that they will update their labelling on video games to include the warning to consumers that the title “may include in-game purchases” and that consumers are warned that these inclusions are not controlled by the ESRB. However, there are some caveats.

Late last night on 27 February 2018, the ESRB’s Twitter account tweeted out this response to consumer’s queries, and recent queries by the US government, about how they were going to respond to the loot box controversy and the inclusion of loot boxes and in-game content available through microtransactions, since both of those things have no rating.

For those of you who can’t see this Tweet, or have Twitter blocked at work, the main purpose behind it is the following lines:

Starting soon ESRB will begin assigning a brand-new label to physical games: In-Game Purchases. This label, or as we call it interactive element, will appear on boxes (and wherever those games can be downloaded) for all games that offer the ability to purchase digital goods or premiums with real world currency. This includes features like bonus levels, skins, surprise items (such as item packs, loot boxes, mystery awards), music, virtual coins and other forms of in-game currency, subscriptions, season passes, upgrades (e.g., to disable ads) and more.

The ESRB also mentions the creation of a website, ParentalTools.org, to help consumers who are parents buying videogames for their kids to understand the different types of in-game purchases and – get this – “manage the amount of time or money those crafty kids spend playing games”. The extra content descriptors will include mentions of “Interactive Elements” which include things like:

  • In-Game purchases
  • User interactions
  • Shares Location
  • Unrestricted Internet

These descriptors are currently vague, and need more explanation of what they actually mean for the consumer.

The ESRB in the past considered loot boxes to be harmless fun, and not gambling. The reason for this was because there was no form of physical or virtual reward that could later be traded for money officially – you don’t get money out of the gamble, which makes it officially an amusement game in the laws of many countries.

It’s a step forward for the industry, in a sense. The ESRB has refused for years to address concerns by consumers over ratings for in-game purchases, and we’ve seen this model move from what it used to be, in the form of single-access online codes, to season passes, to microtransactions and loot boxes. The labelling will probably help, but it’s up to the industry-controlled ESRB to ensure that the ratings are kept up to date to address new ways in which consumers might purchase content or experiences in a video game. It does not, for example, address the niche market of video games which run on, and generate, cryptocurrency for players.

We’ll have to see how far this goes. At least it goes to show that if the games industry isn’t afraid of their customers, they’re definitely afraid of government legislation.

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