Senator Josh Hawley has announced that he will make it illegal for game studios to include microtransactions in games intended for kids aged below 18. Hawley, who is a vocal critic of social media companies, says that the video game industry exploits children by encouraging them to pay for certain virtual benefits.
Explaining these abusive practices, two examples were given by the senator. First are pay-to-win games, which entice users to spend money in two ways. Some games, which are usually free to download, make it difficult for players to proceed before they spend money on upgrades. On the other hand, there are various multiplayer games out there which given an edge to the user who buys upgrades.
Apart from pay-to-win, loot boxes are also used by developers to squeeze money out of users. These boxes are a part of both free and paid games and they attract players with a promise of randomized reward in return for cash.
Hawley accuses the social media and gaming industry of exploiting user addition and cutting kids off from the real world. He says that game creators must not be allowed to monetize games aimed at minors and even the games developed for adults should not make money off of underaged players. If the bill goes through, game developers can face legal consequences for failing to comply with the new requirements.
Mobile games, such as Candy Crush, often feature microtransactions. For instance, children are lured with things such as in-game currency and temporary boosters that reduce the game difficulty to buy the near $150 "Luscious Bundle." The trend has now spilled over to games such as FIFA and PUBG as well. Of course, game makers are likely to oppose the bill, as they make big profits off of randomized microtransactions.
In fact, as soon as the bill was introduced, the Entertainment Software Association issued a statement, explaining how various countries including the UK, Australia, Sweden, and Ireland do not consider loot boxes a form of gambling.
The lobbyist group said that there are various tools available that allow parents to control in-game spending. However, it's worth mentioning that the Belgian Gaming Commission said last year that loot crates are the same as any other illegal game of chance and threatened legal action against various game studios, including EA, forcing the company to remove loot boxes from FIFA in Belgium.
France is apparently also investigating the problem and Netherland has also started a crackdown. However, unlike European countries, the U.S. has been rather soft on game developers.
Unlike casino sites, which are usually tightly regulated, in-game loot crates have no controls. Since the loot box system is randomized and players spend real money on it, many believe that they are similar to gambling, and thus not suitable for kids.
The Federal Trade Commission started investigating loot boxes after Senator Maggie Hassan highlighted the heightened use of microtransactions last fall. FTC plans to have talks with the game industry as well as consumer advocacy groups to discuss this issue.