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Much Ado About Loot Boxes

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  • Much Ado About Loot Boxes

    Loot box
    Once again, the hot topic of video game loot boxes finds itself in the spotlight. This past week the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced their plans to investigate loot boxes. They cite concerns over the potential impact of children.

    In response, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) doubled down on their stance that loot boxes can "enhance the experience." They claim that the loot boxes are not anywhere close to traditional gambling, which you can practice using betting apps for example, and are fine with leaving things as they are. However, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) have said that it's time for the entire industry to step in and self-regulate before the government does it for them.

    The FTC's reasoning for wanting to investigate loot boxes is to protect children. Specifically, they want to "investigate loot box mechanisms, to ensure that children are being adequately protected, and to educate parents about potential addiction or other negative impacts of these games." These specifics were brought up from Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH).

    ESA Buries Its Head in the Sand
    On the flip side, the ESA said that "loot boxes are one way 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."

    It is very easy to see how the ESA's thinking is disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst. To say that loot boxes "have no impact" for those that do not purchase them is often a fabrication. Yes, many loot boxes contain only cosmetic item, but very often they still include gameplay altering items. Even those that only contain cosmetics hold a certain appeal to gamers. Some items cannot be obtained through the typical gameplay progression. Others can only be obtained after multiple hours of grinding. In these cases, the appeal of a cosmetic shortcut can be just as strong as obtaining game altering items. Consumers often feel pressured to get these limited or hard to obtain items. It is especially egregious in games that are not free-to-play to begin with.

    The most that the ESA has done that could be seen as a good way to keep children away from loot boxes is to add an "In-Game Purchases" designation on ESRB ratings. It's vague enough to remain questionable but "just enough" to make it seem like they care.

    The IGDA Responds
    The IGDA, by way of a blog post from executive director Jen MacLean, says that there are three simple steps that industry can take to help regulate loot boxes in games, especially games that are played by children.
    1. Affirm an industry commitment to not market loot boxes to children
    2. Clearly disclose the odds of different rewards when purchasing loot boxes (as many games already do to comply with Chinese law)
    3. Launch a coordinated education campaign that boosts awareness of the parental controls that are available to appropriately limit how players engage with games

    These seem like simple requests, but there is obvious opposition to any sort of regulations. Let's face it, publishers and developers want loot boxes to be accessible to as many people as possible. However, there is no reason why those who are not of legal gambling age should ever have unregulated access to them.
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