US Senator Declares War On Predatory Game Loot Boxes And Microtransactions

At the risk of dating myself, I remember the days of sticking a cartridge into an Atari 2600, and that was it—you played the game as it shipped, with no post-game patches and certainly no in-game transactions. We live in a very different world these days. Microtransactions and so-called loot boxes rule the day, and there is a political effort to remove them from the equation, to a certain extent.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), a self-proclaimed "fierce critic of social media practices that prey on the addiction of users," announced a bill called "The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act." The bill would effectively ban loot boxes and various pay-to-win mechanisms, or what Hawley describes as "several forms of manipulative design."

"Social media and video games prey on user addiction, siphoning our kids’ attention from the real world and extracting profits from fostering compulsive habits. No matter this business model’s advantages to the tech industry, one thing is clear: there is no excuse for exploiting children through such practices," Hawley said in a statement.

"When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn’t be allowed to monetize addiction. And when kids play games designed for adults, they should be walled off from compulsive microtransactions. Game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences," Hawley added.

Hawley provided an example of what he considers a predatory scenario, one involving Candy Crush. The game is free, and like many titles these days, it offers in-game purchases. One of them is a $149.99 "Luscious Bundle" that includes 1,000 units of "gold-bar" in-game currency, a variety pack of temporary boosters to reduce game difficulty, and 24 hours of unlimited lives.

What Hawley takes issue with is Candy Crush touting this particular purchase with a medal labeled "Best Value."

"Candy Crush Developer King earns parent company Activision Blizzard $2 billion annually, boasting 268 million monthly active users," Hawley says.

The bill would put the onus on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to enforce the rules, as an expansion of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). As it were, the FTC last year had agreed to investigate the practice of loot boxes in video games following a formal request by Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH).

"Loot boxes are now endemic in the video game industry and are present in everything from casual smartphone games to the newest, high-budget video game releases," Senator Hassan said. "Loot boxes will represent a $50 billion industry by the year 2022, according to the latest research estimates. Children may be particularly susceptible to engaging with these in-game purchases, which are often considered integral components of video games."

What ultimately comes of this remains to be seen. While opponents of loot boxes often link the practice to addiction and gambling, not everyone sees it that way. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which operates the ESRB, the ratings board that assigns age and content ratings for games, spoke out against the bill in a statement to Kotaku.

"Numerous countries, including Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, determined that loot boxes do not constitute gambling. We look forward to sharing with the senator the tools and information the industry already provides that keeps the control of in-game spending in parents’ hands. Parents already have the ability to limit or prohibit in-game purchases with easy to use parental controls," the lobbyist group said.

In addition to tasking the FTC with enforcing the rules, the bill would also empower state attorneys general to file lawsuits "to defend the residents of their states."