The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the industry-created ratings group, has declared that it doesn’t see loot boxes as gambling – an important distinction for games.
In a statement sent to Kotaku, an ESRB spokesperson said:
While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: 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.
The organization’s distinction is important because games with the content tag of Real Gambling (as opposed to Simulated Gambling) automatically receive an Adults Only (AO) rating, which is a sales kiss-of-death at retail stores.
The topic of loot boxes has resurfaced recently with titles like Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Forza Motorsport 7, Overwatch, Destiny 2, Star Wars: Battlefront II (still in beta), and many more using them in various ways to tempt gamers with microtransactions and in some cases, arguably disrupting the overall gaming experience.
The ESRB certainly has a vested interest in not classifying loot boxes as gambling as well as benefiting from their lucrative inclusion in games, but its distinction seems like a clear one. While we may not like how prevalent loot boxes and microtransactions have become (and how they may affect a game’s structure), the fact that you get items in loot boxes versus the all-or-nothing of actual gambling makes them different.