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ESRB Wasn’t Aware of Pending FTC Investigation Into Loot Boxes

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board wasn’t aware that Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) was going to call for a Federal Trade Commission investigation into video game loot boxes earlier this week, a board spokesperson tells Variety.

On Tuesday, Hassan called on FTC chairman Joseph Simons to investigate video game loot boxes to ensure that children are being protected and parents are educated on the matter.

The request came about nine months after Hassan sent a letter to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board asking for the group to review the ratings process as it relates to loot boxes, examine the marketing of loot boxes to children, and put together best practices for developers around the toxic form of microtransactions. The senator also asked the board to conduct a study that further delves into the reach and impact of loot boxes in games. At the time, she said if they didn’t take sufficient action she would ask the FTC to get involved.

In response, the ESRB added a new online-only rating descriptor that noted when a game had in-game purchases. The descriptor did not distinguish between loot boxes — a system of purchasing digital boxes containing randomized items which some government agencies believe are either a form of gambling or could lead to an increase in gambling in youth — and other less controversial forms of microtransactions, like being able to buy specific hats or clothes for a character. The board also launched an effort to educate parents.

In responding to Variety, the ESRB said it was not made aware of Senator Hassan’s decision to engage the FTC on the topic.

“ESRB president, Patricia Vance, communicated with Senator Hassan about addressing in-game purchases in February 2018, while ESRB was in the process of adding a new interactive element – In-Game Purchases – to inform parents of when games offer the ability to purchase digital goods and premiums with real world currency, which officially launched in April 2018,” according to the statement from an ESRB spokesperson. “ESRB also launched ParentalTools.org to help inform parents of additional tools, such as parental controls, to help them manage how much money (if any) can be spent on in-game purchases. We have not communicated with Senator Hassan on the matter since February.”

Hassan told Variety that while she will work with the ESRB on the issue, the FTC should also look into the issue.

“While I have appreciated working with the ESRB on this issue, I have also said that the Federal Trade Commission has a responsibility to look at this issue,” she said. “The need for FTC action becomes more apparent given the recent report from the Gambling Commission of Great Britain and the steps other countries have taken to regulate loot boxes. I hope the FTC will move quickly to begin their investigation and look forward to working with all parties on this issue.”

A spokesperson for the FTC declined to discuss any specifics of the investigation with Variety and noted it would send out a press release once it has anything to say on the matter.

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