ESRB says video game loot boxes aren't gambling, compares to trading cards

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In 2017, the “loot boxes” found in the multiplayer shooter Overwatch have made their way into several other games, available in everything from Star Wars: Battlefront II to the single-player Middle-earth: Shadow of War. The digital boxes allow users to pay, often with real money, for a selection of in-game items, but their exact contents aren’t revealed until after they’re purchased. This could be seen as a form of gambling, but that’s not how the Entertainment Software Rating Board sees it.

Speaking to Kotaku, the ESRB said that it doesn’t consider loot boxes to be gambling because, although the buyer won’t know what’s inside until after they purchase it, they’re still guaranteed to receive something.

“We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games,” the ESRB continued. “Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.”

These items differ in their use from game to game, serving as purely cosmetic upgrades in games like Destiny 2 and Overwatch, but their use has drawn controversy recently, with Forza Motorsport 7 and Star Wars: Battlefront II using them as a way to drive player progression. This has led some to call these games “pay to win,” as those willing to throw real money into their game have a much better chance of receiving the items or abilities they want.

Just last month, YouTube personalities Tom Cassell and Trevor Martin — better known as “Syndicate” and “Tmartn” — avoided a fine with the Federal Trade Commission after it was discovered the two had misled viewers about their own gambling site. “CSGO Lotto” was created as a way for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players to sell their rare in-game items, but Cassell and Martin failed to disclose that they owned the site when they were using it on their YouTube channels.

This brought into question the legitimacy of their “winnings,” and the two were also accused of paying other YouTube users as much as $55,000 to promote the website without disclosing their sponsorship. Any failure to disclose such relationships in the future will result in a fine.