Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) proposed a bill on Wednesday that would ban so-called ‘loot boxes’ and microtransactions for video games targeted at minors, as well as adult games in which kids are known to make in-game purchases.
Titled “The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act,” an outline of Hawley’s proposed bill also bans game makers from offering “pay-to-win” schemes where players must spend money to gain in-game advantages or additional content, disrupting what Juniper Research estimated could grow into a $50 billion industry by 2022.
Multiplayer shooter Fortnite, for example has made Epic Games over $1 billion in microtransactions since its july 2017 release.
“Social media and video games prey on user addiction, siphoning our kids’ attention from the real world and extracting profits from fostering compulsive habits,” said Hawley in a statement. “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.”
(And exploiting their parents’ credit cards)
Offering one “notorious example,” Hawley’s office pointed to Candy Crush, a popular, free smartphone puzzle app that allows users to spend $149.99 on a bundle of goods that include virtual currency and other items that make the game easier to play. –WaPo
“When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn’t be allowed to monetize addiction,” Hawley said, adding “And when kids play games designed for adults, they should be walled off from compulsive microtransactions.”
According to Polygon, Hawley’s outline is modeled after the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
Loot boxes in particular have been criticized for encouraging gambling and other addictive behavior, particularly among children – as they offer what psychologists call “variable rewards” – outcomes that are better or worse depending on seemingly random factors.
Last fall, the Federal Trade Commission promised to investigate loot boxes following a letter from Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) that she wrote in the wake of 2017’s string of games featuring the heavy usage of predatory microtransactions, such as Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Star Wars Battlefront II. Although some companies have pulled back on the practice, popular games like Overwatch, FIFA, and Apex Legends continue to make big money off randomized microtransactions. Many of those games are played by both adults and children. –Kotaku
With microtransactions and pay-to-play loot boxes coming under fire, some game makers have made it a point not to wade too deeply into that pool – while others, such as Epic Games and Electronic Arts (EA) have become notorious for pay-to-play.
One company who has drawn a line between mandatory and optional microtransactions is 2K Games, which has elected to only ‘cosmetic’ in-game purchases in their highly anticipated sequel to the Borderlands franchise: Borderlands 3. In short – players won’t be able to buy weapons, gear or anything that affects gameplay.
“We’re selling cosmetic items, but we’re not going to nickel and dime players,” said Paul Sage of Gearbox (a 2K subsidiary), adding “DLC will come down the line, but the game won’t have anything excessive.”
Hawley’s proposed bill has already received pushback. In an email sent to Kotaku by the Entertainment Software Association, the video game lobbyist group says “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.”
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