US senator urges the ESRB to take action on loot boxes

Overwatch loot box

While the fury that pressed against loot boxes in Star Wars: Battlefront II has cooled a bit over time, it’s still there and continuing to be loud enough to draw the attention of governments and legislatures. The latest piece of attention comes from New Hampshire’s Democrat senator Maggie Hassan, who’s questioning both the ESRB and FTC on what should be done about gambling-like mechanisms in videogames.

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Today, Hassan questioned potential nominees to be Federal Trade Commission Commissioners about their stances on various topics including predatory student loans and, of course, loot boxes, asking whether the nominees whether they agreed that “that children being addicted to gaming – and activities like loot boxes that might make them more susceptible to addiction – is a problem that merits attention.”

In her remarks, Hassan praised reports on the ESRB calling it one of the most effective voluntary enforcement boards. “That’s why I’m confident that the ESRB will take this issue seriously,” she said, indicating that involvement from the Trade Commission would only be necessary if the ratings board fails to adequately address the issue. Though potential measures from the FTC would differ depending on the individual issue and members at the time, it’s worth noting that the commission currently tends to favour lessening regulation, as seen with the recent vote on Net Neutrality.

In a letter to ESRB president Patricia Vance, Hassan requests action on the issue of loot boxes, saying that ”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.”

Hassan notes the World Health Organization’s recent classification of “gaming disorder” as evidence of the dangers of game addiction. The ESRB’s parent organization, the ESA, suggested this classification “recklessly trivializes real mental health issues.”

Though this isn’t the first time loot boxes have come up in US politics, most of the previous attention – including the bills currently up for discussion in Hawaii and Washington – have been at the state level rather than the federal. An investigation from the FTC would echo the pressures of the congressional hearings about marketing videogame violence in the early 90s which led to the formation of the ESRB in the first place.