Video Games

We Don't Need the Federal Government To Save Kids From Video Game 'Loot Boxes'

Senator proposes telling publishers what virtual products they can and cannot sell to children.


Today's round of ill-advised, for-the-children government meddling comes from Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.), who is fed up with video game makers selling stuff to kids for, uh, real money.

Hawley announced that he's going to introduce "The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act," which would ban the sale of so-called "loot boxes" and other microtransactions marketed toward children.

For non-gamers, microtransactions are options to buy things within a video game itself, using real money. If you download a "free" iPhone game, for instance, the game publisher may encourage you to buy stuff inside the application in order to improve the game experience. These game upgrades are charged to a credit card or checking account associated with wherever the game was purchased (such as the Apple's App Store).

These in-game sales provide a source of revenue for free-to-play games, especially on phones and tablets. "Loot boxes," meanwhile, are a specific type of in-game microtransaction where players purchase a randomized bundle of digital rewards. These sales are common in games like Fortnite, wherein human players use real money to purchase additional weapons or gear for their characters.

Some of these rewards are merely cosmetic, but in some games, loot box rewards actually advantage the players who buy them over those who play only the free version, which incentivizes spending money in order to win games. In high-end, big-tent multiplayer games, players pay for both the game and the upgrades within the game.

Loot boxes are polarizing and controversial among players, sometimes pitting them against game publishers. Players do not like in-game purchases, and they're seen as something of a short cut or cheat code when they offer stark advantages over the basic version of the game. You buy a game, but you can't win it unless you spend even more money. Some countries have regulated loot boxes for this nebulous fairness reason, while others have determined that loot boxes and the like are not a problem so long as the "prizes" a player wins using said upgrades can't be transferred or sold or otherwise exchanged for real cash.

Hawley's legislation takes aim at a smaller wrinkle of in-app purchases, which is the phenomenon of kids using their parents (generally without permission) to buy upgrades. He wants a complete ban on these microtransactions in games aimed specifically at kids, and he also wants to force publishers of non-age-specific games to prevent their under-18 users from making in-game purchases.

Neither pay-to-win schemes nor kids buying purchases their parents don't approve of are grounds for federal regulation of a massive sector of the entertainment market. Gamers are quick to respond to loot box systems they deem unfair, and big game publishers can and do adjust how they're implemented in response to those market pressures. The problem of kids making unapproved purchases, meanwhile, is an issue of both parental awareness and transparency.

The Entertainment Software Association, the trade group that represents video game companies, issued a statement that essentially says the industry knows there's a problem and they're working on it: "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."

I'll add that, as a lifelong gamer, there's actually nothing new about game publishers figuring out ways to get you to spend additional dollars on that video game you bought. Many guidebooks that helped players find secrets and beat games published in the 1990s were officially licensed products. And even before that, back in the early days of the computer gaming in the 1980s, I distinctly remember Sierra Entertainment operating a toll line people could call to get tips to beat their adventure games, like the King's Quest series. The reason I remember the existence of the toll line was due to my dad's reaction to seeing the phone bill. What could I say? My character got swallowed by a giant whale and I couldn't figure out how to get out.

We survived that phone bill without having to get our senator involved. Other Americans should figure out how to do likewise.