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Senator calls on video game ratings board to examine loot box practices

Federal interest comes one day after Hawaii lawmakers propose two bills

Star Wars Battlefront 2 - X-wing assault DICE/Motive Studios/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

A day after Hawaii’s state legislature introduced proposals to regulate video games that employ “loot box” systems and associated microtransactions, a senator has gotten involved and turned the lens on North America’s video games ratings board.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) wrote to the Entertainment Software Rating Board to ask her to re-examine how games with loot boxes are rated. In her letter to ESRB president Patricia Vance (via Glixel), Hassan acknowledged that “there is robust debate over whether loot boxes should be considered gambling,” but contended that they deserved extra scrutiny by the ratings authority.

“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,” Hassan wrote.

“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,” Hassan said.

Hassan closed by asking that the ESRB “collect and publish data on how developers are using loot boxes, how widespread their use is, and how much money players spend on them.”

Polygon reached out to representatives of the ESRB; its parent organization, the Electronic Software Association; and Electronic Arts, whose Star Wars Battlefront 2 launch in November drew the most mainstream attention to loot crates. Neither the ESA nor EA’s representatives commented on the ongoing controversy. Polygon was referred to a representative with the ESRB, who did not respond before publication of this article.

In a loot crate system, players are rewarded for play with in-game currency that can be exchanged for prize boxes whose contents are unknown. In some games, players receive cosmetic or optional items only; other games offer performance upgrades. Typically, there is a means of buying these crates for real money and bypassing the gameplay obligation that earns them for free. Battlefront 2 drew significant attention not only for its connection to the Star Wars franchise — a month before the launch of its next big film — but also because player advancement through the game was so inherently tied to loot crate acquisition.

Electronic Arts, responding to the furor, suspended all real-money transactions in Battlefront 2 a day before its formal launch on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. Though loot crates were also a feature of prior releases such as Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Call of Duty: WWII, their appearance in Battlefront 2 made it a mainstream issue. Further, the Star Wars franchise’s appeal to younger audiences made the question of underage gambling more real in the eyes of critics and lawmakers.

On Monday, four proposed laws were presented before Hawaii’s state legislature in a cause led by state Rep. Chris Lee, who in November sharply criticized EA’s practices and warned that regulatory action was on the table. The bills would prohibit the sale of games with loot boxes to anyone under the age of 21, regardless of rating, and also require publishers to prominently label games that feature loot crates or similar systems.

“It’s clear that these mechanisms have the same kind of potential for cognitive harm for kids, and they have the same kind of addictive properties for those vulnerable to the same kind of thing [as gambling],” Lee told Polygon on Tuesday. “We’re not focused on regulating loot boxes because they’re gambling; we’re focused on protecting consumers from the same kind of harm that is posed by gambling.”

Hawaii may be one state, but any state-level action regulating sales could affect how a publisher sells games in the rest of the country. Further, as sales over console marketplaces increase, labeling requirements could drag in those owners — Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Sony’s PlayStation Network — as well. And though she has proposed no legislation, a U.S. senator taking up the cause amplifies the matter to a nationwide concern in video gaming’s richest market.