On Loot Boxes, ESRB Ratings & Gambling

| December 7, 2017

There’s been a lot of recent conversation in the media about a new video game, Star Wars Battlefront II, and its use of “loot boxes” and concerns about gambling (not to mention “pay to win”). Let’s explore the issues & some concerns.

  1.  What is a “loot box”?

In video games, there are opportunities to purchase virtual items to help people with their game progress/strategy; these opportunities are generally referred to as “micro-transactions.” They can occur in free-to-play (“freemium”) mobile games, PC games, and console games. The “loot boxes” are essentially mystery crates – a user pays to purchase a crate and the contents are unknown to them. They could be very rare and valuable contents, or the contents could be relatively useless.

Star Wars Battlefront 2 loot box contents

Image: Star Wars Battlefront 2 loot box contents (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7O5lesHCOY)

  1. Why are loot boxes are a concern?

Purchasing a loot box is essentially gambling; the element of chance is key, as users are paying to purchase an unknown reward (The American Psychological Association defines gambling as “Risking something of value in the hopes of obtaining something of greater value” — DSM-5, 2013). Since primary audiences for many video games are youth, the concern is that these games are promoting gambling, which is ordinarily illegal for youth, to underage players. Additionally, people in recovery for problem gambling issues and those who have other addiction issues are vulnerable.

  1. What’s being done, and what can be done?

Currently, two state representatives from Hawaii are crafting a bill to ban the sales of games that offer loot boxes (like Battlefront II). They are encouraging people from other states to contact their legislators and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. (See: https://wccftech.com/hawaii-state-rep-loot-boxes-gambling/.)

Key quote: “I think the mechanism is so close to gambling, when we talk about psychology and the way addiction and reward works, I think whether or not it means the strict definition of gambling, it’s close enough and the impact is close enough.” – Rep. Sean Quinlan, Hawaii

Most kids can play poker, blackjack, and other casino games, and fantasy sports on whatever device they use for gaming. Some games even offer them the ability to  play for real money.  And many of these games are rated “E” for everyone.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) is in charge of rating video games for age appropriateness.  The board rates games based upon many “content descriptors,” including language, mature humor, tobacco references, gambling references, and many more descriptors (click here for ESRB’s full list).

Many of even the gambling-related games are rated “E” for everyone, despite “simulated gambling” being a descriptor in the ratings system for “T” for teen games. The legal age of gambling in most U.S. states is 18 for lottery-type games, and 21 years for casino-type games (including slot machines, video poker, and sit-down card games).

Related: get our infographic on kids, gaming & gambling

So…what’s the big deal?

This is a major concern for people concerned about youth gambling, since young people have more than twice the rate of problem gambling than adults.  Research shows that four to eight percent of adolescents already have a problem with gambling, and an additional 10-15 percent are at risk for developing a severe gambling problem.   A major concern with young people is that gambling problems are
relatively easy to hide, and visible consequences may not appear until well into adulthood. Lawmakers are starting to consider this as impetus for prohibiting the use of loot boxes in video games. Aside from these issues, many gamers are frustrated by the concept of loot boxes and the idea that people can “pay to win,” vs. earning their place by grinding.

What can I do?

Start by writing a complaint to the Entertainment Software Rating Board at this address  http://www.esrb.org/consumer_online_hotline.asp.  Here are some talking points to consider adding to your letter:

  • Just like with alcohol and drugs, the greater accessibility and availability of gambling has been found to relate to increased rates of problem gambling.  Video games and the Internet provide the easiest possible accessibility and availability to gamble, and there is a definite lack of supervision on the Internet in terms of verifying legal ages to gamble.
  • Research shows that the earlier an individual begins to gamble, the more at risk he or she is of developing a gambling problem later in life.  A search of ESRB-rated games with the words “poker,” “blackjack,” or ‘slots” in the title revealed a total of 91 games, 73 (80%) of which were rated “E” for everyone, five (5.5%) rated “T” for teen, and only seven games (7.7%) rated “M” for mature. The legal age of gambling in most U.S. states is 18 for lottery-type games, and 21 years for casino-type games (including slot machines, video poker, and sit-down card games).  By rating the majority of gambling-related games “E” for everyone, ERSB is basically saying that it is okay for youth of any age to gamble.
  • Games that are rated “E” (everyone) to even “T” (teen) send a message that playing gambling-type games (even without the ability to play with real money) that gambling is harmless, and the games themselves convey the message that gambling is cool, fun, and it is easy to win. ESRB is sending a false message to parents, educators, and peers that these games are innocuous.
  • Electronic forms of gambling are well known to be the most “addictive” and contribute to the greatest, fastest development of gambling problems. Most people who enter into treatment for gambling problems report some form of video gambling as their preferred way to gamble.  The combination of being able to 1) play alone, 2) for long periods of time, and 3) with intermittent rewards, creates the conditions for high risk of the development of gambling problems.

What can we ask that the ESRB do?

Here are a couple of potential solutions. In your letter, you might ask them to implement the following remedies:

  1. Rate all gambling-related games, whether they offer real or simulated gambling, “M” for mature or “A” for adult.
  2. For any game that offers connection to real gambling over the Internet, provide clear warning about the potential risks and harms of gambling, in addition to providing a resource of how to seek help for gambling problems.
  3. Prohibit the use of microtransactions that offer any element of chance (e.g., loot boxes).

Other ideas, questions or comments?  Please contact us.

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Category: Problem Gambling

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