The United States’ independent rating board for video games has stepped into the current online discourse regarding the nature of loot boxes. Today the Entertainment Software Rating Board stated that it, “does not consider loot boxes to be gambling. The ESRB is a non-profit regulatory organization responsible for assigning ratings to content. Any regulation pertaining to whether loot boxes should be treated as a form of gambling would likely start with the ESRB, but such a decision is clearly not in the foreseeable future.
So far, loot boxes have been considered comparable and equal to other forms of premium digital content including microtransactions and DLC, in the ESRB’s eyes. Loot boxes may be different in design to DLC and microtransactions, but the ESRB them all to be premium digital content no matter what format that content is delivered:
“ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling. While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.”
For now games featuring loot boxes will continue to be placed within the ESRB’s “Digital Purchases” category, but further labeling or rating changes is not a topic the ESRB appears to be considering.
The logic behind the ESRB’s reasoning is deeply rooted in current United States law regarding what is and what isn’t gambling. The crux of the issue is the concept of wagering. Through this concept, loot boxes are protected from being associated with gambling in several ways. The more important details being that digital goods have no inherent value, no matter what “rarity” they’re associated with, and that buyers don’t actually wager anything. There are no gains or losses, just the acquisition of digital goods.
There are clearly certain games and platforms that test the limitations of the protections offered by the ESRB definitions. For example, Steam’s digital content marketplace for games including Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive allows resale of individual items earned from loot boxes. Is that a defined value for a digital good? Does paying money to open a loot box that will include items sold on the Steam Marketplace for more or less value than what was paid count as wagering?
Ultimately, the conversation remains complex enough to make productive discourse between all parties a challenge. The ESRB has defined rules for what constitutes gambling, but publishers and developers actively avoid breaking those rules by embracing the nebulous concept of a digital good’s value. And game players struggle with understanding the system while also wrestling with enjoying games that may feature predatory digital purchases like certain forms of loot boxes.
While the takeaway at the moment may be frustrating, there is a silver lining. The conversation has started, and the ESRB is listening. Whether the regulatory body makes any changes from here on depends wholly on what the greater video game community says.