ESRB's In-Game Purchases label
The "In-Game Purchases" label is a method made by the ESRB to "regulate" gaming monetization in response to increasing pressure from governments to regulate abusive microtransactions and gambling. The European equivalent, PEGI, also has a separate icon for the label, depicting a bank card, as shown on the thumbnail on the right.
The Australian classification system for computer games also uses it as part of the consumer advice if it contains in-game purchases. Example
In reality, however, the label is nothing but an attempt to stave off encroaching regulatory bodies without actually addressing the issue via a vague disclaimer that doesn't actually inform the consumer of anything remotely useful/important.
The abusive implementation of predatory microtransactions in modern video games has been one of the most controversial aspects of gaming in years, with many AAA and mobile games being specifically designed to continuously push players to spend large amounts of money in microtransactions, often by intentionally making games worse so that the "solution" to "improve" the game can be sold. One of the most controversial forms of aggressive monetization in games is the loot box system.
While criticism against loot boxes was mainly limited to only rants on the internet within the gaming community for years which went mostly ignored, the topic reached the ears of mainstream audiences in late 2017 when Star Wars Battlefront II's gambling controversy became widespread, since the Star Wars brand was popular enough for the controversy to be recognized outside of the gaming community. Ever since multiple government bodies around the world have begun investigations against loot boxes for their dangerous similarities to literal gambling as well as the fact that the gaming industry had been exploiting outdated laws to continuously monetize gambling addiction through video games.
The ESRB/PEGI created the "In-Game Purchases" label in February 2018 to be applied to both console and PC games after New Hampshire State Senator, Maggie Hassan, urged them to review their rating system to encompass the predatory monetization schemes running rampant in the mainstream gaming space.
A disclaimer of this nature is nothing new in the games industry; in 2013, Apple added the disclaimer to the Apple store for apps and games that included microtransactions or subscription services within them. The disclaimer was added after Apple received lawsuits from users how had unknowingly made purchases in-game without any indication they were doing so. Other mobile platforms like Google Play eventually followed suit, disclosing the inclusion of microtransactions in games on their store.
Why It's Useless
While the label does disclose the inclusion of side payments in mainstream games, it is deeply flawed on a fundamental level for several reasons, which include:
- It doesn't actually address the main concern put forward by the gaming community and the government, being loot boxes mainly.
- The term "In-Game Purchases" is extremely vague, and doesn't zero in on the type of purchase the game may or not feature. So vague in fact, that it can apply to many modern mainstream video games today since they have some kind of purchasable content.
- Because the label casts such as huge net, this means that games with upfront, honest transactions like Horizon Zero Dawn's The Frozen Wilds expansion, for example, would share the same content disclaimer as the far more predatory microtransactions found in many sports games like NBA 2K18, or loot boxes in Star Wars Battlefront II before they were removed outright.
- Publishers can completely circumvent the label by releasing games without microtransactions only to then add the monetization in an update, that way all the printed copies won't have the label despite the game being planned to have microtransactions from the beginning as seen with Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled.
- Maggie Hassan urged the ESRB to review their rating system in response to loot boxes, no in-game purchases in general, so the implementation of this disclaimer misses the point of her proposal completely.
- The label has proven itself to be highly ineffective in informing buyers about the risks of in-game purchases, as evidenced by the news report that two young kids in the UK had emptied out their parents' bank account, desperately trying to get a particular item in FIFA, not realising they were spending real money to do so. Nearly £550 (about US$700) was spent.
When the label was first announced, YongYea described it as a crap "solution" that didn't address any of the concerns raised about manipulative loot boxes, and further criticized the label for having such a broad definition that lumps in more honest transactions like expansions with glorified gambling systems in other games.
One disgruntled player even went out of their way to humorously slap a handwritten label saying "In-Game Purchases" on a post-it note no less, on a copy of Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled after microtransactions were added since early pressings of the game don't have the label on it.
Even after the disclaimer, the ESA still insists that loot boxes are not a form of gambling, which prompted Maggie Hassan to ask the FTC to investigate loot boxes, having shown continued concern that the issue is not fully addressed.
It is well known that the ESA and ESRB are both owned by the same companies that continue to rely on loot boxes to make billions every year, as such both organizations continue to avoid addressing the issue. Governmental bodies have been very critical of the gaming industry for their continued refusal to give concrete answers and dodging the topic of gambling whenever investigations are held.