As anyone who has been following the gaming industry knows, the last few months have been very contentious when it comes to the subject of loot boxes. Loot boxes are essentially a mechanic of putting games of random chance into “loot boxes” to make money. And with multiple countries having either promised or delivered on legislation concerning these systems, some even calling them outright gambling, the US is now forced to acknowledge the issue and confront it head on. So far both the UK, the Netherlands, Japan and Belgium have all moved against these systems in some form.
This announcement comes after US Senator Maggie Hassan pledged to make putting pressure on these mechanics, and the companies that use them, a priority of her advocacy and policy decisions. She pledged to make sure loot boxes were being sufficiently regulated if the ESRB and other industry groups failed to self-regulate in a timely manner. And as everyone knows, the ESRB has consistently defended the loot box systems, refusing to call them gambling.
This statement was echoed by an ESRB spokesperson who offered the trade group’s position on the subject, saying:
Loot boxes are one way that players can enhance the experience that video games offer. Contrary to assertions, loot boxes are not gambling. They have no real-world value, players always receive something that enhances their experience, and they are entirely optional to purchase. They can enhance the experience for those who choose to use them, but have no impact on those who do not.
This position is pretty contentious, because many gamers and regulators will see it as ignoring the often intentional design decisions publishers make to attempt to encourage gamers to spend more money. And just because the boxes “. . .enhances their experience”, that isn’t always positive. See Middle-Earth: Shadow of War and Star Wars Battlefront II for commonly cited examples of how games are actively forced to change after having the gameplay loop ruined by loot box mechanics.
It’ll be interesting to see if anything does come from this in the coming months. While it will take some time for the investigation itself to be completed, and even longer to draft legislation, we can probably expect US-based companies to try and get out ahead of the issue and throw their full lobbying weight behind turning public and legislative support against any potential changes. Such is the US political system I guess.