Why The Anti-Loot Box Bill Is Actually Kinda Shitty

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Miss., arrives for a Senate policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (Photo: Andrew Harnik / AP)

A bipartisan bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday aimed at banning pay-to-win microtransactions and loot boxes in video games that are “minor-oriented”. The bill, however, essentially applies to all video games ever made, whether children were the intended audience or not. It would also appear to ban a wide variety of in-game mechanics that virtually no one is complaining about, even the parents of kids who game.

At its core, the bill seeks to prohibit video game companies, like Blizzard, and distributors, like Steam, from selling games that allow players to pay money in exchange for unlocking features or obtaining items that offer their characters a competitive edge—especially when these perks can be otherwise obtained in game for free. These types of purchases are what the bill refers to as “add-on transactions.” (Think buying a weapon in a game that could be obtained by repeatedly besting a difficult boss in a dungeon.)

Introduced by Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, the bill has gained the support of two Democrats, Senators Ed Markey, and Richard Blumenthal, both of whom framed it as a means to crack down on business models predatory toward kids.

Loot boxes in particular, which the bill defines as transactions that involve randomised rewards—akin to how a slot machine works—are widely viewed as exploitative and one of the worst practices adopted by game makers in recent years. It’s been widely argued that loot boxes can be addictive as they are essentially a form of gambling, and that they unfairly target children who end up emptying their wallets (or, in many cases, their parent’s wallets) in exchange for items that have little to no actual value.

“Inherently manipulative game features that take advantage of kids and turn play time into pay time should be out of bounds,” Markey said. Blumenthal said he was proud to support the bill because it would “protect kids from predatory gaming apps and hold bad actors accountable for their reprehensible practices.”

Hawley himself said the bill was aimed at combating an “addiction economy” that places “a casino in the hands of every child in America with the goal of getting them desperately hooked.”

The actual text of the legislation, however, appears to cast a very wide net. Ostensibly, any video game created, whether for children or not, whether containing a casino-like mechanic or not, would be in some way restricted by this law.

What it aims to do is prohibit specifically “pay-to-play microtransactions” and “loot boxes”. It’s how these terms are defined, however, that will cause game developers and players the most headache. It would limit, for instance, the types of rewards that can be offered when players purchase “Collector’s Editions” of video games. Expansion packs that, aside from additional content, grant players competitive advantages over ones who don’t purchase them would be banned.

Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, in particular, would be forced to drastically curtail the kinds of optional items available for purchase. (These restrictions, notably, do not apply to purely cosmetic items.) Want to pre-order a game so you can get access to a cool new weapon or piece of armour before anyone else? Sorry, that’s not allowed.

How banning these types of features will do anything to dissuade kids from learning how to gamble is unclear. Gizmodo reached out to Hawley, Blumenthal, and Markey. They did not respond to a request for comment. (We’ll update if they do.)

The ban applies only to “minor-oriented” games. But what exactly does that mean? By the bill’s definition, it’s virtually any video game on the market. It may be determined that children are the target audience of a game based on, for example: the subject matter; visual content; use of animated characters or activities that appeal to anyone under 18; the age of non-player characters in the game; the presence of celebrities who appeal to individuals under 18; any advertising materials; or other evidence related to the composition of the game’s player base, just to name a few.

And here’s the kicker: This new law would also apply to any game that is “not a minor-oriented game” if the distributor or publisher has “constructive knowledge any of its users are under the age of 18.” That term, “constructive knowledge,” means essentially information that a company should be aware of, regardless of whether or not it’s actually aware of it. (Try to imagine a game developer arguing in court it had no idea that its product had ever been used by a minor.)

“This legislation is flawed and riddled with inaccuracies. It does not reflect how video games work nor how our industry strives to deliver innovative and compelling entertainment experiences to our audiences,” Stanley Pierre-Louis, CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, told Gizmodo.

“The impact of this bill would be far-reaching and ultimately prove harmful to the player experience, not to mention the more than 220,000 Americans employed by the video game industry,” added Pierre-Louis. “We encourage the bill’s co-sponsors to work with us to raise awareness about the tools and information in place that keep the control of video game play and in-game spending in parents’ hands rather than in the government’s.”

The bill could have unique consequences for players of MMOs like World of Warcraft (WoW) and Final Fantasy XIV. Both of these games allow players to pay money to “level boost” a character. In FFXIV, for example, players can advance to level 60 for any “job” by paying around $26. In WoW, it costs around $87 to boost a character to level 110. These options almost certainly meet the definition of an “add-on transaction” that “enhances the entertainment value of the product” under Hawley’s bill.

An “add-on transaction” becomes “pay-to-win” whenever it “eases a user’s progression through content” or helps users “accomplish an achievement” that can otherwise be obtained by not paying any more, or provides a player with a “competitive advantage” not available to users who do not pay extra money to obtain it.

Whatever individual gamers think of players who take advantage of “level boost” purchases in MMOs, the purpose of them is often to allow a new player to bypass hundreds of hours of gruelling, grinding gameplay in order to catch up with friends who’ve been potentially playing the game for years.

While FFXIV now allows players to leap between “worlds” (servers), for instance, previously if you wanted to join your friends on a different server, you’d have to start a new character. But instead, for about $17 you could buy an item that would allow you to skip through dozens of quests on this new world that you’ve already endured on others anyway.

A variety of “level boosts” sold by SquareEnix for the game Final Fantasy FFXIV (Screenshot: Mogstation/Gizmodo)

Do these types of transactions equate to putting “a casino in the hands of every child in America,” as Hawley suggests? Obviously not. Nevertheless, the bill would appear to outlaw such transactions—even though no one is asking lawmakers to do so.

Many games that allow players to pay to skip content aren’t even “competitive” in the traditional sense. Many MMOs are story driven. There are no leader boards. You can’t even technically “win” at these games. They just go on forever. None of the options to pay for items or to boost levels actually put other players at a disadvantage. This is particularly true of games like FFXIV that have very limited player-vs-player battle options.

Nevertheless, the text of Hawley’s bill would almost certainly to ban these types of transactions. But it’s like he told Kotaku in an interview earlier this week: “I am not myself a gamer, so it does not stem from my personal experience.”

Perhaps if Hawley did try playing video games, he’d realise the sheer number of players he’s about to tick off. With the way it’s laid out, the bill also arms the video game industry with legitimate arguments not to support a bill that, in spirit, probably deserves consideration. After all, we should not be turned 13-year-old kids into gambling addicts. That’s only OK after they turn 18.

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