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Loot crate warning labels won’t save us

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Good strategies are buried under an ESRB update that will do very little

A screenshot of an Overwatch Anniversary loot box Blizzard Entertainment

The Entertainment Software Rating Board, which controls the game ratings in the United States, has announced the creation of a new label that will tell players which games include some form of in-game purchases, including loot crates. But the label will also be put on any game that includes the ability to purchase downloadable content, expansions or upgrades.

Think about the last 15 games you bought. How many of them wouldn’t have this label? You may as well label games that you play with a controller; in-game purchases have become so ubiquitous that they’ve become the rule, not the exception. This new label feels like a plot to get legislators off the back of the industry, not a serious attempt to fix anything.

The ESA sees this as a parenting issue

The Entertainment Software Rating Board was created in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry’s trade group.

What’s interesting about the ESA’s response to this issue that it largely frames this conversation as a parenting issue, not a serious problem with gaming content on a systemic level. The good news it that the ESA does offer some good solutions for parents, but this label isn’t one of them.

Parents who don’t already play games need education about this issue, not labels. Many parents likely don’t know how common it is for games offer for-pay content of some kind to the player, including their children. The best solution is for parents to sit down with their kids when they play games so they have at least a passing knowledge of what they’re playing and what kinds of content the game is offering for purchase.

If parents aren’t learning about the games their kids play, a small label on a game won’t help anyone. And it’s doubtful these parents are reading the fine print when they buy games online.

But it’s unrealistic to think that all gaming time will be supervised, especially if you have multiple children. That’s why it’s so important to correctly set up the permissions systems and parental controls on the consoles, phones and other portable devices you hand your children.

“Every game device has parental controls that enable parents to manage the games their children play, including how much time and money they spend,” the ESRB noted in its letter to Senator Hassan. “Most controls can block in-game spending altogether, and, should any of the parental controls be circumvented by a particularly sharp-witted child, the account holder will always receive an email notification when a purchase is made from their own or their child’s account. This is one of the reasons we always recommend that parents set up a child account or sub account for their kids.”

The ESRB has also set up a website that explains how to set up these parental controls on common consoles and devices, and it’s this action that’s likely going to have the most positive impact on the issue. This is information parents need to have, and laying it out in a simple way is an effective tool to make sure parents have at least some control over what their children are playing, and what they’re buying online. This is a great resource for parents who may not be very tech-savvy.

Labeling games that include some form of in-game purchase is a silly strategy that’s focused on PR rather than tackling the real issue. This label isn’t likely to do much to change player behavior, and it’s not going to provide much information that parents don’t already have.

The conversation about loot crates and other in-game purchases isn’t about telling people that they’re there, it’s about how they’re used and why. It’s about whether video games are trying to tap into the same parts of our brain that get hooked on gambling. It’s about economies that are reliant on loot crates, creating games that just aren’t fun to play. The conversation is about what games cost to create, and whether the industry can survive without offering games with some form of additional transaction past the sale price of the game itself.

These are complex issues that don’t have easy answers, and the creation of a label isn’t going to get us anywhere. The move will provide the video game industry itself some cover by allowing it to collectively say that it’s doing something, but it’s already possible and relatively easy to control what children buy online. Most us know that most games contain some form of additional purchase options.

The arguments about loot crates are going to continue, but it’s possible that this new label will at least get politicians, developers and players to realize that this is a controversy that won’t be solved on message boards.

Notice how the ESA quickly shifts responsibility away from the industry and back to parents in its defense of loot crates, while painting a relatively positive picture of what they offer:

“We believe that loot boxes are more comparable to baseball cards, where there is an element of surprise and you always get something,” the letter states. “Loot boxes are an optional feature in certain games that provide the player a fun way to acquire virtual items for use within the game itself ... Having said that, if parents have a concern about how much time or money their kids are spending playing games, they can activate parental controls to help them manage both.”

The argument is basically that loot crates are OK, they are certainly not gambling and parents have tools to make sure they can control what their kids are buying. Many players aren’t going to find this line of thinking very compelling.

The ESA’s goal is likely to make sure that it can do enough, without hurting the industry itself, to keep lawmakers from crafting new laws. And this label is likely to be helpful in that context. It just doesn’t help anyone else, and it’s not going to put the issue to bed.