US senator challenges ESRB to clamp down on loot boxes

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A US senator has called on the ESRB – the ratings board for games in the US – to take steps against the proliferation of loot boxes in videogames. 

In a letter sent to ESRB president Patricia Vance, senator Maggie Hassan called on the ESRB to include information about the presence of loot boxes as part of its rating system. She said: “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.” 

She went on to say: “The potential for harm is real. 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.” 

Separately, in a Q&A session with nominees for the post of commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission, senator Hassan suggested that if the ESRB fails to take action against loot boxes, the US government, via the FTC, could step in. 

Hassan’s highlighting of the loot box issue mirrors similar interventions elsewhere in the world – last November, Belgium’s Justice Minister called for loot boxes to be banned in Europe, and Hawaii just introduced legislation that will ban the sale of games containing loot boxes to those under the age of 21.

Loot boxes are already a controversial issue for gamers – EA, for example, was forced to abandon Star Wars Battlefront II’s microtransaction engine after a loot box controversy pre-launch, and the majority of gamers despise the way in which they introduce an element of pay-to-play to games, while making vast amounts of money for games publishers. But with anti-loot box legislation getting onto the agenda in an increasing number of countries, loot boxes may at last have had their day.

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Steve Boxer
Steve Boxer has been writing about videogames since the early 1990s. His first console was an Atari VCS, and he misspent most of his youth in the 1980s in the arcades. As well as for Green Man Gaming, he can be found writing for The Guardian, Empire, TechRadar and Pocket-Lint. He’s currently having trouble deciding whether his favourite console is his Xbox One X or his Switch, and plays a wide range of games, but especially RPGs (he loves a good JRPG) action-adventure titles, shooters of all descriptions and driving games. Follow him here.