All Things Being (Un)Equal: ESRB’s New In-Game Purchase Label Fails to Communicate

The video game industry has a new problem. Many games nowadays, including some of the most popular like Overwatch and Call of Duty: WWII, offer what are known as “loot boxes.” These are purchased with real money. They contain a variety of items, abilities, or character skins. Their contents are random.

Many have likened this to gambling, and they’re not far off. Loot boxes take your real, hard-earned cash and present you with a random chance that you’ll get something great. This differs from games that simply offer in-game purchases where you know exactly what you’re getting for your money.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) agrees with lawmakers who say that this is a problem. Not that it should be illegal, just that parents, in particular, need to be aware that their kids might end up spending money frivolously. Since the ESRB’s job is to rate video games based on their content, their solution is to create a new label that denotes games with in-game purchases.

In theory, this is a great idea. However, it overreaches and has the potential to become a problem.

See, the ESRB’s new label covers all in-game purchases. If a game contains random-chance loot boxes, it gets the label. However, if it contains clearly marked content, such as expansions or new levels that can be purchased within the game, it also gets the label. The problem becomes apparent.

It’s not that in-game purchases are an issue. Many games, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, contain in-game purchases that greatly expand the content of the main game and are worth the money spent. The problem is that this sort of content is being treated the same as loot boxes. That’s like saying a trip to the grocery store and a trip to the casino are the same thing. They’re not. And if the ESRB doesn’t change course, they run the risk of creating an environment that is hostile toward developers operating in good faith and including premium expansion content in their games.

It’s not too late for the organization to change direction. Here’s hoping they see reason.