A U.S. Senator named Josh Hawley announced a bill that would see loot boxes and pay-to-win microtransactions banned in games that are played by minors, which would mean both games designed for kids under 18 and games made by developers who willingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions. The debate surrounding loot box legality and the existence of microtransactions has been a persistent one over the last few years of the video game industry's evolving economic model, with various countries arriving at different conclusions regarding the practices.
According to some studies, loot boxes have caused an increase in gambling problems among young people, although it's still a contentious point of view that has many detractors. Still, the FTC began an investigation of video game loot boxes late last year, and some developers have begun to shy away from the practice as more countries, particularly those in Europe, begin to require them to disclose odds and contents prior to purchase. Microtransactions aren't the subject of as many legal battles, but they're equally reviled, with the gaming community frequently unifying in efforts to decry or remove the practice from games that employ them — see the recent Mortal Kombat 11 grind reduction, for instance, or the incredibly poor reception that Borderlands 3 microtransactions got when Randy Pitchford accidentally-on-purpose announced them during the title's gameplay reveal.
Hawley's bill, which is called "The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act," will be introduced to the U.S. Senate soon. Hawley's team has brought up Activision title Candy Crush as an egregious offender in pay-to-win microtransactions, and the bill will likely attempt to target many online games that feature loot boxes and other content that requires real money spending for in-game benefit. Hawley's press release, covered by Kotaku, outlined why he believes the bill is necessary:
"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's bill is already making waves, so much so that the Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry lobbyist group, has released a statement itself in order to offer an alternative to Hawley's thought processes using other country's decisions on loot boxes:
"Numerous countries...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."
While Hawley's intent is clearly coming from a place that's well-meaning, it does appear the senator might have over-estimated the amount of access children have to microtransaction payments. Obviously, microtransactions remain a hot-button topic in the industry, and children can abuse them — we've seen multiple cases of "borrowed" credit cards resulting in four-figure bills for parents. That being said, however, it's the exploitative nature of these practices as a whole, not a predatory intent to get children to unwittingly spend their parents' money, that should be addressed. Holding these business models accountable is good either way, though, and it will be interesting to see if Hawley's bill manages to gain any traction despite targeting a rather niche element of the industry's reliance on microtransactions and loot boxes.