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Senator Presses FTC and ESRB on Loot Boxes

Rolling Stone reports more scrutiny falling on the use of loot boxes in videogames, as U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) sent a letter to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board on the topic on the same day she raised it during a Senate committee meeting. The letter touches on the question of whether loot box sales represent a form of gambling, and asks the ESRB to direct some extra scrutiny toward this topic, suggesting that "at minimum" the rating system should identify a game's use of loot boxes. During a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Senator Hassan solicited reassurances from four Federal Trade Commission nominees that they feel gambling concerns make this an issue that bears investigation by the FTC, depending on the ESRB's response to the Senator's letter. This video shows the questions at the committee hearing, and Rolling Stone also has the letter of response from ESRB president Patricia Vance, saying, "As the industry evolves, so does our rating system, and we will continue to make enhancements to ensure parents continue to be well-informed." Here is a portion of the original letter Senator Hassan sent to the ESRB:

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. The potential for harm is real. Recently the World Health Organization classified “gaming disorder” as a unique condition in its recent draft revision of the 11th International Classification of Diseases. While there is robust debate over whether loot boxes should be considered gambling, the fact that they are both expensive habits and use similar psychological principles suggest loot boxes should be treated with extra scrutiny. At minimum, the rating system should denote when loot boxes are utilized in physical copies of electronic games.

To that end, I respectfully urge the ESRB to review the completeness of the board’s ratings process and policies as they relate to loot boxes, and to take into account the potential harm these types of micro-transactions may have on children. 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.

Further, I urge the ESRB to consider working with the relevant stakeholders – including parents – to collect and publish data on how developers are using loot boxes, how widespread their use is, and how much money players spend on them.

Finally, I ask that you develop best practices for developers, such as ethical design, tools for parents to disable these mechanisms, or making them less essential to core gameplay.

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