At least one U.S. Senator has had enough of loot boxes. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, has added banning microtransactions to his list of platform positions—right next to banning abortion, protecting assault weapons, blaming human trafficking on the rise of premarital sex and conception, and separating children from parents who entered America illegally.
Hawley announced that he’ll be introducing a bill called the Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act. If passed the bill would prohibit “several forms of manipulative design,” including loot boxes and pay-to-win tactics, cracking down on games that encourage players to continually pump more money into them for various perks and advantages. The bill as proposed wouldn’t just target games marketed at at the under 18 demographic—although that would be its main target—but any game that “knowingly allows minor players to engage in microtransactions.” So even games rated M could be found in violation of this potential law, if they don’t have an ironclad system to prevent minors from ordering microtransactions.
In a press release Hawley explains his reason for proposing this bill:
Social media and video games [sic] 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.
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.
The press release goes on to single out mobile smash Candy Crush and its “Luscious Bundle,” which sets the player back $149.99 for some in-game trinkets.
Hawley is far from the first lawmaker to frown upon loot boxes and other microtransactions. There’s been a wave of legal threats and potential legislation throughout the world over the last couple of years. If this gains traction within Congress, though, it could be the most serious threat the microtransaction model has seen yet. And as odious as Hawley’s beliefs tend to be, Paste has a hard time getting too worked up about this particular bill. The rise of microtransactions and “games as a service” has been bad for consumers, who can wind up spending far more on a game than they used to, and for game developers, who can wind up working in a perpetual state of crunch to keep up with the demands of a regular release schedule.The only people who really benefit from microtransactions are executives and shareholders, while everybody else in the equation is inherently exploited by them. We don’t necessarily think Congress should be spending its time on this issue at the moment—there are way more pressing things to address today—but since the industry apparently can’t regulate itself maybe outside pressure is what it’ll take.
For its part, the games industry isn’t keeping quiet. The Entertainment Software Association sent Kotaku a statement about Hawley’s bill. “Numerous countries… determined that loot boxes do not constitute gambling,” the statement reads. “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.”