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.


NEXT: There's Nothing New About the 'New Conspiracism'

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  1. As her highness has said, “it takes a village”.

  2. Before anybody asks, you had to have the peacock feather to tickle the whale's uvula so that it would spit you out.

    What's that? You didn't pick up the peacock feather before you went and got yourself swallowed by a whale? Well ... sucks for you!

    1. There is one other way out...but you aren't going to like it

      1. Blowhole? Blowhole.

        1. Nope, that's not the exit that Kevin Smith was referring to.

    2. I miss the 80's games. Zork, Ultima, Raid on Bungeling Bay...

      1. I can't help but compare every fantasy RPG game I've ever played since 1985 to Ultima V and they all come up short. That may just be the rosy-glasses of nostalgia, though. . .

        1. Ultima V was great.

        2. It's the good ole flash over substance, graphics over storyline, cgi over writing syndrome. Latest casualty: Game of Thrones. Looks like many people never outgrew the fascination with jingling keys.

        1. Don't forget to wear the condom.

      2. fucking loved Zork

        1. +1 Flood Control Dam #3

          1. still have atari800 and the floppys, but lost the disk drive along the way.

    3. Forget having the feather. Getting up to the uvula in the first place is damn near impossible. Put F5 on speed dial... er something.

    4. Peacock feather?!? I don' need no steenking peacock feather.

    5. What’s that? You didn’t pick up the peacock feather before you went and got yourself swallowed by a whale? Well … sucks for you!

      This is exactly why I never could get into King's Quest.

    6. And Scott has been tickling uvulas every since.

      1. At first I read it as "tickle the vulva" and thought "that's not how I remember King's Quest!"

  3. Not only did we survive the phone bills without the government needing to get involved, its a lot easier to lock down an account to prevent kids from buying things without permission these days.

    I don't even have kids and you need my password to buy anything on my phone or my Xbox

    1. We don't need the nanny state in on this...

      but it is an issue. Fortnite is really well designed. I don't know if they did it on purpose, but it is the perfect intersection of peer pressure, a fun game, inoffensive content and micro payments in fictitious currency. So instead of that (useless) skin costing $7.50, it costs 1500 V-bucks. How much is that? Well, it is fluid and inexact. So figuring out how much you just spent is nigh impossible.

      Which gives the 10 year old mind enough plausible deniability to go ahead and buy anything and everything.

      I tried to use Fortnite to teach my son about delayed gratification and getting real value for money.... it seemed to be a perfect setup. He wanted to play the "season pass" - and if you play it and save the v-bucks you earn, you will have enough to buy the next season pass. So I explained this to him and let him earn enough to buy the season pass doing chores.

      He made it until about a week before the end of the season pass.... and blew the whole wad in a fit of elementary school envy.

      So he had to sit out a season. And we tried it again.... surely he learned from that experience, right? Well, he did... but he still couldn't implement what he learned. Again, blew the whole wad and had to sit out the next two seasons.

      Then a relative bought him a gift card for Fortnite for Christmas (over my objections). And he immediately blew then entire thing, didn't even bother with the season pass.

      His friends were online with him as he bought things... they were all super-jealous. His social prestige was sky-high.

      It is an ingenious system for encouraging little kids to spend infinite money.

    2. That's the thing. People act like they cannot control their kids.

      You can block billing shit to your cell account. And you can NOT give your kids your credit card info. My XBox also has a password on it to download anything, even a demo. It isn't that difficult.

      Loot boxes are bullshit. Obnoxious shit to exist in full-priced retail releases and are almost always terrible (Japanese titles tend to avoid these). I loathe them.

      But if you don't want to buy loot boxes, DON'T. Developers will stop including them if you didn't spend on them. But they make a SHIT TON of cash on them so demand is clearly there.

      1. Haha, no. Japan is the king of gacha. You should check out FGO if you want to see legalized gambling at its worst. WSJ even covered it recently.

        1. Oh, Japan is hardly heaven on Earth. But gaming is one of my concerns involving Japan and, outside of bullshit like Asura's Wrath ending being separate paid DLC, they don't tend to do a lot of the loot box BS.

  4. I look forward to a time when video games are designed by a combination of SJW intersectional scolds and the past office.

      1. I thought you mean the pasta office, dedicated to the mightly Spaghetti Monster.
        [tickles Paul with noodly appendage]

      2. Paste Oriface

  5. Should have called it the Protecting And Not Allowing Children Enjoyment Act, or PANACEA for short.

    1. Uh, weirdest anti-pedo law name ever.

      1. Was that another Spaghetti Monster joke?

    2. Hawley seems like a nitwit, but I have to give him credit for not coming with a convoluted title for his bill in order to give it a God-country-family acronym. In all too many cases (I'm looking at you, USA-PATRIOT Act), it seems as though a bill's authors spend more time and thought on the catchy title than they do on the bill's actual provisions.

      Props to Hawley, as well, for not finding an infant victim of the game vendors' despicable machinations so that he can call the bill "Kaden's Law".

  6. there's actually nothing new about game publishers figuring out ways to get you to spend additional dollars

    In fact, games used to be kept only in specific places in bright, attractive, fun-looking boxes that accepted an unlimited number of coins from unsuspecting youngsters where the games were designed to rapidly get harder and harder and have no end point so that literally every few minutes the victim was compelled to drop another $0.25 to keep the game going.

    One particularly predatorial game was designed so that you had to purchase more lives during the game to keep it going, sometimes from moment-to-moment.

    A fiscally imprudent youngster might wind up dropping $20 for one ten-minute game. Might even learn not to do that again.

    1. You're talking about those peep-show boxes on Times Square in the 70s, aren't you?

    2. Moon Patrol was a bitch.

      1. I tried to do a hyper-link to the wiki page on Gauntlet, but I guess that tag doesn't work anymore. That game would empty my pockets with alarming speed.

        1. so many ghosts.

    3. I'm pretty sure that if arcade machines had added credit card readers, that both (A) kids would have racked up bills way higher then $20, and (B) parents would have been up in arms.

      So while you are correct that in some fundamental ways the industry hasn't changed, the ways that it has changed easily explain why more people think it's a problem now then when you were a kid.

      1. good point.

        trying to get *one quarter* out of my 83 y.o. grandfather to play Elevator Action at the burger joint in his town was a fun debate

        what does the machine give you for your quarter?
        not worth it.

  7. Loot boxes are gambling marketed towards kids. Publishers were fine without them before and they’d be fine without them today. I’m not crying for the right for EA to try to get people (not just kids) hooked on it. I’m not calling for it to get regulated either, but I won’t fight it if it does get regulated.

    1. First they came for the loot boxes, and I said nothing...

  8. I'm sorry, but games are literally designed to manipulate brain chemistry in order to be addictive and to get people to spend money on it.

    It's not accidental. Companies have spent a lot of effort and money on research on how to do this.

    It's basically an act of aggression towards people, no different than knocking them down and stealing their wallet. Only it uses science and psychology instead of physical force.

    1. Huh. I am hooked on a couple, and you know what? I haven't spent any money on them, not one cent. And you know why? Because, as a homo sapien sapien, I have this thing called "self control". But, if I want to buy something, I'm pretty sure that it's none of the government's fucking business. How about we fix the debt, illegal immigration, etc, before congress spends time fucking with shit that is none of their business?

      1. Because Congress people do not see the debt and illegal immigration as problems.

    2. literally designed to manipulate brain chemistry in order to be addictive and to get people to spend money on it

      And don't even get me started on cigarettes!

  9. All weapons sold in games should be licensed and registered.

  10. The real vulnerability isn't kids stealing credit cards to run up mom's account. The real problem is people with addictive personalities falling into gaming the same way that others fall into gambling, where they spend their life savings or even the rent on supporting the Clash of Clans group.

    The Youtube channel Extra Credits did a good series on Loot Boxes. I would suggest starting with
    "The Loot Box Question - Designing Ethical Lootboxes"

    1. Sorry, but in the last few decades the word "addictive" has been expanded to where it's lost all meaning. In its current usage, it basically refers to anything that 1) some people like; and 2) that perhaps they shouldn't do, or shouldn't do so much of. It's been changed from a genuine medical term to a convenient label to slap on anything that I want to regulate or ban.

  11. I can’t believe I’m saying this but Claire Mccaskill would have been an improvement. Hawley is a flat out statist scumbag. I’ve heard him do radio interviews and this is who he is. This is basically what you should expect from him for the next 6 years or until he gets caught with an underage prostitute whichever comes first.

  12. As a Gamer have some thoughts.

    Most of the more popular games that have Micro Transactions do have alternative way to earn the Premium Currency without spending money, but dose require spending more time and effort in the game grinding, so that even tho spending money is a shortcut you can still get the premium stuff without spending money.

    So in reality Loot Boxes is more of an issue with Self Control and Patience

  13. It IS gambling and it should be regulated or prohibited like other addictive things are. Might have to turn in my libertarian card for this but there's a reason every society on earth controls addictive things and its not just some jackbooted desire to stick it to what are typically the poor, the young, and the stupid. Just like Casinos aren't built for people who enjoy gambling as a responsible leisure activity loot boxes aren't made for casual players who will spend little if any money on the game. They are particularly designed to prey upon the relatively rare person with exceptionally poor impulse control. You might say "well, that's their responsibility to have better impulse control" and freedom of choice and that is... true, but there is a legitimate desire for communities also to not allow the professional exploitation of its weaker members. If casinos (and loot boxes) were just a thing you could choose or not and everyone could be trusted to buy (and sell) them responsibly and in a nonexploitive manner that would be one thing, but the rule, rather than the exception, is that gambling operations exist not to serve a larger userbase of people who enjoy gambling but to find particular people who will self destruct on it and then destroy them.

  14. You can think that adults should be allowed to legally gamble while still regulating children's ability to legally gamble.

  15. This type of game mechanic is pretty much the entirety of collectible-card games like Magic the Gathering, Pokémon TCG, and Yu-Gi-Oh!. The only thing good about them is the ability to sell and trade cards after initially opened from the semi-random packages, which isn't possible in many of the video games with lootbox systems.

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