What Parents Need to Know About Loot Boxes (and Other In-Game Purchases)

Written by Patricia E. Vance, President, ESRB
July 24, 2019

Many games today, particularly those that can be played online or on a mobile device, enable players to earn or purchase virtual items that can enhance their experience. In most cases, you can play through a game without ever having to obtain any of these items. But, as a parent, you might want a bit more information about the different types of in-game purchases and what you can do to limit or prevent your child from purchasing them without your OK.

How Do I Know If a Game Has In-Game Purchases?

First step, check the ESRB-assigned rating information. Games and apps rated by ESRB have three parts:

  • Rating Categories suggest age appropriateness.
  • Content Descriptors indicate content that may have triggered a particular rating.
  • Interactive Elements highlight interactive or online features of a product, including if:
    • purchases of digital goods or services are offered in-game,
    • users can interact with each other,
    • a user’s location can be shared with other users, and/or
    • unrestricted internet access is provided.

For physical games, you can find our In-Game Purchases Interactive Element on the back of video game boxes. If you’re more of a digital family you’ll find the notice on a game’s or app’s product detail page. This is how it looks on the back of the box:

Note that we started assigning this Interactive Element in 2018, so games rated earlier may not have this notice. If that’s the case, we recommend that you do a quick search to find out if the game in question offers in-game purchases, including the game’s description on the device.

What Can Be Purchased In-Game?

Smaller in-game purchases or “microtransactions” typically augment or personalize the content of a game. Regardless of the type of microtransaction in a game, it’s important to remember that they are never mandatory. Here are the key types of in-game microtransactions:

In-Game Currency

Some games offer the ability to purchase in-game currencies that can be exchanged for content. For instance, your children may ask to purchase 1,000 “Crystals” for $10, which can then be used to buy other virtual in-game items. In many cases, you can purchase a quantity of these currencies through an online store connected to the game. However, in other cases you can also earn in-game currency just by playing.

Pay-to-Continue

Some free games – typically available on mobile devices – offer the ability to purchase “lives” with in-game or real currency. Most of the time lives will recharge over a period, but by purchasing lives players can keep playing without having to wait.

Cosmetic Items

Lots of games allow players to create their own unique character and customize them with in-game items that reflect the player’s personality. These are often referred to as “cosmetics.”

Expansions

“Expansions” vary in size and cost, but tend to be bigger chunks of new gameplay, mechanics, and/or items that extend the lifespan of a game. These usually cost less than the initial price of the game and can add just a few hours of additional gameplay, or dozens of hours of fun.

If you’re looking for peace of mind, you can take advantage of the parental controls available on every game device to manage in-game spending.

Season Passes

When you buy a season pass for your favorite football team (in real life) you’re getting seats for every home game of the season. Buying a “season pass” for a game is similar, only instead of a seat, you’re pre-paying for additional content that will be released in the future.

Playable Characters

Some games offer the ability to purchase new playable characters to download after the game’s initial release. Sometimes you can purchase a season pass (see above) to get all of them, while other times you can buy them individually or in “character packs.”

Loot Boxes

“Loot boxes” or “loot crates” are like locked treasure chests that contain an array of virtual items that can be used in the game once unlocked. In some games loot boxes can be earned through gameplay and/or can be purchased using either real money or in-game currency. In most cases, you can’t see the items before you make the purchase.

How Can I Tell If a Loot Box Will Have an Item that I May Want?

No two loot boxes are the same, and games often incorporate loot boxes differently. Some games list which loot boxes guarantee better (rarer) items. Meanwhile, other games may identify the relative rarity of individual items using standard terms (such as Common, Epic, Rare, Legendary), a color code and/or symbols like stars. And then there are “drop rates,” which list the probability for getting each item offered in a loot box. Some games display all of the above!

Understanding “drop rates,” is simpler than it appears at first blush. The higher the “drop rate” or percentage displayed, the higher the probability that you will get a rare item from a loot box. For example, a drop rate of 25% for an “Epic” item means that the player has a 25% chance of getting an “Epic” item (or better). A drop rate of 100% for a “Rare” item means that you will always get a “Rare” item (or better).

How Can I Manage How Much My Child Can Spend?

If you’re looking for peace of mind, you can take advantage of the parental controls available on every game device to manage in-game spending.

Many consoles, like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have the ability to set spending limits, which I like to think of as an allowance. Other devices, like the Nintendo Switch, may block purchases entirely, or require parental approval for every purchase.

Make sure you visit ParentalTools.org to find your device and follow the instructions for setting up parental controls.

What Else Do I Need to Know About In-Game Purchases?

Remember that parental controls can help you manage more than just spending. You can also manage which games your kids can play based on the assigned ESRB rating, set play time limits, manage communication with other players, and more.

Before you activate parental controls, we highly recommend that you meet as a whole family to establish some house rules that everyone can follow (that means you too, parents). You can use ESRB’s Family Discussion Guide as a starting point, and then set controls to help enforce some of those rules.

Have more questions? Be sure you reach out to us via our Contact page, or on social media!

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