The Entertainment Software Rating Board claims it’s taking steps to solve the lockbox crisis, in part in response to bills before multiple state governments as well as discussions in (and ultimata from) the US senate’s commerce, science, and transporation committee. ESRB President Patricia Vance told journalists today that the non-government body will mandate special labels applied to video game boxes notifying consumers that in-app purchases and cash-shop transactions are part of those games. It won’t be explicit to lootboxes, she argues, because “a large majority of parents don’t know what a lootbox is.” It’s set up a new website to explain parental controls to parents as well, though we don’t recall anyone asking for that.
But maybe don’t get too excited. Polygon argues that the proposal “feels like a plot to get legislators off the back of the industry, not a serious attempt to fix anything,” since pretty much every video game would have this relatively generic label and there’s an overt attempt to deflect all real responsibility to parents. Moreover, the ESRB still isn’t requiring publishers to disclose odds for their gambleboxes.
Probably my favorite screenshot in an MMO is the one I took back in 2003 or so, when my Star Wars Galaxies character was selling handmade spice out of her backpack one by one, before anyone I knew even had factories. After buying a few Neutron Pixies from me, one of my customers whispered to me some advice. “You’re kinda small and adorable for a drug dealer,” he noted. “You may want to get a scar or something for the next transaction with someone.”
That conversation popped into my head this week when I read about the ESRB’s guidelines on the depiction of narcotics in video games, which have apparently been reinforced by a recent study on top-selling console games that found plenty include various drugs as boosters, some in combination with other drugs, some without any associated side-effects. SWG, of course, had really nasty side-effects, a long-lasting downer that often made the spices not worth using outside of critical fights or duels, but still, the whole thing was still very cartoony. With or without my scar.
But what about other MMOs? I can think of only a handful of true MMORPGs that touch this sort of mechanic; most just seem to skirt the question altogether, no doubt to avoid that ESRB M sticker. You guys can probably think of more examples. Which MMOs have “drugs,” did you think they were problematic, and have you ever taken drugs in an MMORPG?
If you’ve been following the lockbox/lootbox controversy over the last couple of weeks (or last multiple years, ahem), then you know that opponents of the practice in online games seldom actually argue “for the children” since let’s face it, the MMORPG playerbase skews well into adulthood. Adults are the ones being affected.
Academic Ramin Shokrizade – well-known for his scholarly economic articles and recent treatise on how MMOs are dying because of poor design rather than insufficient demand – has nevertheless jumped into the fray with a similar argument, suggesting that in declaring lootboxes not gambling and refusing to intervene, the ESRB is effectively “promoting children’s gambling.”
In his new article on Gamasutra, Shokrizade says that the ESRB’s statement about lootboxes not being gambling connotes a misunderstanding about what an “element of chance” actually is.
The ESRB may not be interested in protecting gamers against predatory business model practices like lockboxes, but European regulators may be joining their Chinese counterparts in at least taking a look before casually dismissing concerns.
As Polygon reports, a member of the UK parliament, Daniel Zeichner, submitted formal questions to the UK’s secretary of state on topic, requesting information on her plan to “to protect vulnerable adults and children from illegal gambling, in-game gambling and loot boxes within computer games,” specifically on the Isle of Man, whose legal code refers by name to “in-game gambling and loot boxes.”
Meanwhile, the European PEGI – akin to the ESRB on this side of the pond – has said that it can’t rule on the issue for game studios because it “cannot define what constitutes gambling” because it’s not a national gambling commission – contrary to the ESRB’s statement.
So, MMO players. Are you tired of hearing about lockboxes and gambleboxes? It feels like we’ve been complaining about them for like six or seven years now, probably because we have. It wasn’t cute back when City of Heroes was trying it, nope. Heck, it wasn’t cute back when Star Wars Galaxies was trying it with card packs. Now it’s every damn game, and it’s gone way beyond MMOs. I’m not sick of hearing about it myself. I’m just sick of dealing with it like a pestilence making me hate the games and developers who exploit them.
Maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: As more AAA online gaming studios figure out that lockbox gambling garbage is a fast ticket to easy money, more mainstream gamers are catching wind of the scam and raising objections, so it’s not just MMO players all by our lonesomes anymore. Indeed, this week multiple game critics, YouTubers, and review services have come out against lockboxes, from Boogie to TotalBiscuit, the latter of whom has called for ESRB intervention. Reviews aggregator OpenCritic has further said it’s “going to take a stand against loot boxes” by taking crappy business practices into account. The ESRB doesn’t care, by the way, and as blogger Isarii has pointed, the self-regulatory body has conveniently twisted the meaning of gambling to avoid dealing with the problem, thereby failing to protect us from it, but that’s just making people angrier.
So hey, you know what, studios? Keep screwing up with lootboxes. Keep attracting mainstream anger, keep disrespecting us, until it all boils over, one way or another, and you can’t exploit us anymore. And in the meantime, people? Stop. Buying. Lockboxes.