Following in the footsteps of some European countries (most notably Belgium), U.S. Senator John Hawley (R-MO) is taking aim at one of the most controversial video games trends in recent memory.
In a new proposed bill titled “The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act,” Hawley proposes the ban of loot boxes and pay-to-win microtransactions in “games played by minors.” Hawley’s team offered press materials that highlighted games like Candy Crush (published by Activision) as a game that uses aggressive pay-to-win tactics, including a bundle of power-up items that is sold for $150. Many mobile games (and some regular console or PC games) also have similar game mechanics.
The bill also goes after Loot Boxes, which is when a player spends real money to open what is essentially a “mystery box,” spitting out items, power-ups, or cosmetic add-ons of random rarity. Many gaming developers have been reluctant to list the actual odds of receiving the rarest of items, leading to comparisons to slot machines as gamers keep paying to open Loot Boxes in search of that one elusive item. Some loot boxes also provide items that give a competitive advantage against the AI or other human players, which means they also fall under the “pay to win” category.
“When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn’t be allowed to monetize addiction,” Hawley said, according to a press release. “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.”
It’s not the first time the U.S. government has looked into these gaming mechanics. The Federal Trade Commission promised to investigate loot boxes in 2017 after a handful of controversial games were released that were especially exploitative of microtransactions — most famously Star Wars Battlefront II, published by EA.
The bill sounds like it is worded to target games made for children, but many games with E or Everyone or T for Teen ratings include types of loot boxes and microtransations. Overwatch, FIFA, and Apex Legends are all examples of this.
The Entertainment Software Association (which is a fancy name for the lobbyist group representing the video game industry) has released an official statement in response to upcoming bill:
“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.”
Some games have managed to introduce these elements in ways that don’t offend the gaming community. For example, Fortnite by Epic Games is free to play (well, the Battle Royale part of the game is free), and there is no competitive advantage in owning any of the thousands of cosmetic upgrades. Most are awarded through an optional seasonal Battle Pass that costs $10 as a one-time-per-season purchase. Additional items are for sale in the Item Shop, which can be purchased with V-bucks (which are earned at a low rate by playing the game, or bought with real money). There are no loot boxes in the game.
Rocket League, a game that is best described as “soccer, but with cars,” takes a similar approach. Any of the unlockable items are purely for cosmetic reasons. They recently also introduced an optional seasonal Rocket Pass, that mimics Fortnite’s battle pass almost exactly. However, this game does feature Loot Boxes (known as Crates) that contain a randomly selected exclusive item. Although they are not pay-to-win and can be turned off completely in the game’s settings, Rocket League has taken some heat for including a gambling-like mechanic, since Crates must be opened by Keys (that can be earned or bought with real money), and the chances of getting the rarest items are extremely low.
The recent release of Mortal Kombat 11 was met with major outcry from the gaming community, as they revolted against the extra tough grind required to actually unlock new items. One gamer calculated that it would take roughly $7,000 to buy everything in the game outright, and another posted to Reddit that some modes of the game were “literally impossible” to beat without shelling out more money for consumable upgrade items. In response, developers NetherRealm promised to tweak the difficulty a bit and offered early adopters a bounty of in-game currencies and items as an apology (although they clearly have no plans to remove Loot Boxes or microtransactions from the game).