U.S. Senator Urges ESRB to Review Ratings Process in Response to Loot Box Controversy

U.S. Senator Urges ESRB to Review Ratings Process in Response to Loot Box Controversy

Four FTC Nominees agree to address loot boxes if confirmed.

The loot box debate has moved away from the comments section and made its way to the US state houses. During a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing today with four Federal Trade Commission (FTC) nominees, all four nomineeds agreed to address loot boxes if confirmed.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has oversight over the FTC and ESRB. Senator Maggie Hassan (D) of New Hampshire asked the nominees if they agreed "that children being addicted to gaming - and activities like loot boxes that make them more susceptible to addiction - is a problem that merits attention?" To which all four nominees agreed is an issue that will be addressed if their nominations go through.

In addition, Sen. Hassan sent a letter to ESRB President Patricia Vance that asked the ESRB to review the board's ratings process and policies in regards to loot boxes, suggesting the ESRB should collect and publish data on how video game developers use loot boxes.

In her letter, Sen. Hassan writes,

The prevalence of in-game micro-transactions, often referred to as '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 for harm is real. Recently the World Health Organization classified "gaming disorder" as a unique condition in its recent draft revision of the 11th International Classification of Diseases. 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.

Sen. Hassan brings up the recent decision by the World Health Organization to classify "gaming disorder" as a condition in the 11th International Classification of Diseases, something the WHO confirmed to USgamer is backed by independent study, contrary to what the ESA has asserted.

The state of Hawaii has already begun reviewing legislation that could potentially ban the sale of video games with loot boxes to customers under the age of 21. It appears that the conversation about loot boxes in the US government is only just beginning as more states begin looking into government action against a problem first brought to attention by consumers, and commenters on the internet.

Sen. Hassan's full letter can be read below.

Patricia Vance

President

Entertainment Software Ratings Board

Dear Ms. Vance:

I write to today regarding an important gaming issue that was recently brought to my attention by a constituent.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has an important mission in both providing parents with the necessary information to make decisions about the suitability of games, and their content, for children, as well as ensuring that the industry is following responsible marketing practices.

The ESRB rating system is of great value to parents across the country, empowering parents to make informed decisions on behalf of their children. As technology advances, ESRB must work to keep pace with new gaming trends, including the in-game micro-transactions and predatory gaming tactics, particularly as they are deployed on minors.

The prevalence of in-game micro-transactions, often referred to as '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 for harm is real. Recently the World Health Organization classified "gaming disorder" as a unique condition in its recent draft revision of the 11th International Classification of Diseases. 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.

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 that adequately protects the developing minds of young children from predatory practices.

Further, I urge the ESRB to consider working with the relevant stakeholders – including parents – to collect and publish data on how developers are using loot boxes, how widespread their use is, and how much money players spend on them.

Finally, I ask that you develop best practices for developers, such as ethical design, tools for parents to disable these mechanisms, or making them less essential to core gameplay.

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Matt Kim

News Editor

Matt Kim is a former freelance writer who's covered video games and digital media. He likes video games as spectacle and is easily distracted by bright lights or clever bits of dialogue. He also once wrote about personal finance, but that's neither here nor there.

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