Hawaii State Rep Is Drafting Bill Barring Minors From Buying Games With Loot Boxes

Imagine a 17-year-old gamer tossing a copy of the Teen-rated Star Wars Battlefront 2 onto his local GameStop's checkout counter, only to be asked: "Sir, may I see your ID?"

Chris Lee

A Hawaii in which games with microtransactions are illegal for minors to purchase is one that state legislator Chris Lee is now hoping to realise. He says that prohibiting the sale of games with loot boxes is a "no-brainer", and along with a dozen other politicians, he says, he's thinking of how to put legal controls around video game microtransactions.

Lee, a member of the state House of Representatives who has also authored bills around climate change and gun control, says he downloaded Clash of Clans two years ago to pass time between meetings. In 2014, the freemium strategy mobile game generated a reported $US650,000 ($865,170) per day.

"At one point," Lee told me over the phone, "I started buying crystals. I ended up spending a few hundred dollars over the course of a few months." Once he realised what he'd done, Lee deleted the game. He felt that the game's microtransaction mechanics had snuck up on him without warning. And once he deleted Clash of Clans, he said, "there was no value left. It's just money that's gone."

Over the course of a few months, Lee had been hearing from local teachers about kids who struggled with the temptation to spend beyond their means in game microtransactions. Lee cited one conversation about a kid who, he heard, had stolen their parents' credit card to pay for their gaming habit. He says several families reached out about spending thousands of dollars on microtransactions.

"There's no transparency at the outset of what they're getting into," he said. "That's something I think is a real concern."

Now, Lee is working to prevent the sale of games containing loot boxes to gamers under 21 in Hawaii. He also wants games to disclose up-front whether they have "gambling-based mechanics" and to publicise the odds of winning various items in loot boxes.

In-game purchases have become more prevalent in recent years and, among a vocal faction of gamers, are viewed as a plague. Some of 2017's biggest titles, including Destiny 2, NBA 2K18, Assassin's Creed Origins and Middle-earth: Shadow of War, contain microtransactions that had players complaining that they were being preyed on by game companies.

Discontent peaked with the release of October's Star Wars Battlefront 2, which contained loot crates purchasable with real money (they have been temporarily removed). It became clear that Star Wars Battlefront 2's microtransaction mechanics gave players who spent more money a statistical advantage in the game's multiplayer mode.

In a recent YouTube video, Lee said that Battlefront 2 was an "online casino designed to lure kids into spending money".

Loot boxes that can be purchased for cash have proven particularly controversial. Players who might want a specific item often purchase several loot boxes in hopes of obtaining that item. Since the odds of receiving that item aren't disclosed, players might be tempted to buy and buy and buy. Recently, Kotaku interviewed a 19-year-old who had spent $17,000 on in-game microtransactions.

The question of whether purchasing loot boxes (or, generally, randomised loot mechanics) may constitute gambling is not clear-cut, and never has been. In the US, the legal definition of gambling involves staking something of value on the outcome of a contest, including the purchase of a chance to win a lottery, with the agreement that the person will "receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome".

At a casino, participants pay money to participate in a game in hopes of receiving their money back. The odds of winning are known. In a video game with loot boxes, players pay money in exchange for a loot box, which may contain an item they want. Players don't know the odds. And they aren't asking for a return on value. They just want to feel good.

In 2012, as loot-based mobile games started to catch on in Japan - called gacha after the sound of a capsule-toy machine - the government declared a certain type of loot box design, called "complete gacha", to be illegal under existing laws. Politicians in Victoria, Australia and Belgium have said that loot boxes constitute gambling, while the United Kingdom's Gambling Commission has said they do not.

In the US, it's sort of up in the air. A 1999 lawsuit claimed that opening Pokemon card packs counted as illegal gambling. The suit was dismissed. Last year, when game publisher Valve came under fire for empowering Counter-Strike: Global Offensive's underground skin-gambling industry, the Washington State Gambling Commission told Valve to get rid of it - but not to get rid of the randomised loot boxes that fuelled players' desire to gamble skins.

Lee thinks the answer is unambiguous. He wants to make sure kids under 21 can't purchase games with loot boxes for the same reason kids can't just walk into casinos. "Gambling has been illegal especially for minors and young adults because they are psychologically vulnerable," he told me, adding that kids "often don't have the cognitive maturity to make appropriate decisions when exposed to these kinds of exploitative mechanisms."

As the cost of making games has skyrocketed and the sticker price of console titles has remained at $80, publishers have looked for more ways to make money after that initial purchase. So now, a lot of companies like EA and Warner Bros. are thinking of games as "services", a new model that has players continually buying in. When I asked Lee whether he has sympathy for games studios who haemorrhage money during the development process, Lee pointed to EA's own statement to investors that the Star Wars Battlefront 2 controversy wouldn't have "a material impact" on future earnings.

"That's a decision on the industry's part that could be changed at any time," he said, adding, "I recall paying $75 [USD] for Mario Kart 64 when that was first out."

Another possible impediment to Lee's lawmaking initiative is the fact that, even if games were more transparent about whether they included microtransactions, a lot of games are constantly in flux. "Say you have a big title with no microtransactions, rated T for teen, sold everywhere right before Christmas," Lee said. "And then, on January 1st, EA puts out an update that includes loot boxes. Suddenly, what parents thought is safe for their kid is not - and they have no idea the change happened."

Lee isn't the only politician who has unsheathed his sword in the face of the microtransaction movement. He said that, since becoming vocal on the issue, he's heard from representatives from over a dozen other states, including California, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Action on microtransactions, he said, is a nonpartisan issue that is "pretty much universally supported." In January, he'll be going into a legislative session. Changes he spearheads would only affect Hawaii, but he's hoping to set an example.

"As an elected official we have an obligation to protect public health and safety," he said. "In the same way gambling and drugs can be addictive - that's the same kind of chemical response in the brain that these kinds of predatory loot boxes are designed to elicit."


Comments

    Mr Lee, if you're going to declare that loot boxes are a form of gambling, you also need to declare that trading card game packs, blind figure packs, mystery POP vinyls, and Kinder Surprise are too.

    Because they're all the same thing - random selection.

    You're always guaranteed to get something when you buy a loot box, so how can it be considered gambling?

    Also, most games with loot boxes allow you to earn them for free by playing the game, so there's no need to buy them. It comes down to choice at that point.

      you cant resell or trade items from loot boxes, where you can do just that with cards, kinder suprise, blind figure pack and pop vinyls.
      When you walk into a supermarket, you are also not automatically directed to visit the kinder suprise alise, nor are you directed to go straight to the toy alise in Kmart/Target/BigW, you are however often forced to go the ingame store by the story/tutorial whether you care about loot boxes/mircotransactions or not

        @thyco

        That actually makes it worse in the digital space though.

        When you buy cards in trading packs you cannot turn around in 3 seconds list them for sale and let the internet take care of the rest of it for you.

        The fact that the marketplace exists is why we had CS:GO lotto, where kids where actually gambling using these digital products and potenitally left with nothing.

        ---

        It would potentially be a financially lucrative options at the start of say a Heartstone expansion to go and but 200 packs of cards and then list them all for sale on a marketplace. Because if people are looking for specific cards, you may make more money back than you put in.

        You could actually gamble on the aggregate net worth of a pack of cards in Hearthstone, you wouldn't even have to play the game to do so.

        ----

        It would actually incentivises selling rare pulls instead of using them. Should I use this 3 star Yoda I just unlocked, or should I sell the thing for $50.

        ---

        There needs to be some standardisation in the systems because there are systems that work reasonably well and then there are EA systems.

      The idea that anyone is defending loot crates after EA has shown how crap they can be is crazy. Any pressure like this is good cos it might make companies think twice about implementing this money grabbing bullshit.

      Kinder surprise are banned in his country sooo

        Because its a ch8ld safety/choking hazard.... not because of its random toy. Nice red hering though

        Which incidentally worka against your argument as the whole point of the legislation was to "protect minors". The exact same reason kinder was banned

          what argument was I making? cause I don't recall making one.

      OK, the idea that in order to classify as gambling there must be a risk of loss - where are you getting that from?

        Loot Boxes tend to have junk and demand items. You could spend $3 on a box and get nothing but duplicates and junk. You've lost $3 and gained nothing of value.

          my initial question was poorly phrased......the suggestion that in order for something to count as a loss it needs to be a total loss. Where does that come from?

          edit: i.e that if you win 'something' every time it can't be gambling

          Last edited 09/12/17 11:52 am

          Depending on your definition, either it all has value or none of it has value. Different parts may be personally more or less desirable to each individual, but that's not the same thing.

    This will work as well as putting an R+ rating on the package for GTA5.

      Frankly, it's better than doing nothing. Publishers need to be reigned it

        For Shadow of War it was the developers, Monolith, that chose to include loot boxes. Not all publishers are to blame.

          no it was WB that wanted them in, not monolith, to the point that the original orc merchantr looked a lot like the COO at WB

            Any interview I can find with monolith devs, the devs are spruiking them. They might not have been the ones with the idea to put them in but they certainly don't seem against them.

              you really think a CM and the VP of monolith PR are going to say they are against loot boxes in their 60 singleplayer game in public? even more so when the gold currency was first noticed back in a live stream in may, Jared and Mike were quite to quick to say they didnt want to talk about it just yet

                So because they don't say it, you'll just invent the story yourself.

                I said the devs. Not PR or anything else.

                www.eurogamer.net/amp/2017-09-24-shadow-of-war-developer-discusses-games-controversial-loot-boxes

    Minors never get their hands on things once they've been made illegal...

      This affects the publisher more than the children. Children are already using their parents credit card, but when a game is rated R18+ suddenly the publisher will think twice about selling it.

        This proposal won't change the rating of the game, which is issued by the ESRB. It only affects who it can be sold to, and only in Hawaii. Since the majority of gamers are over 18, I think you're overestimating how much publishers will care.

    Fantastic, let’s see more governments get on board with this.

    Legislation that is going to dramatically affect the publisher’s revenue stream is the only way things are going to change.

    Conservstive legislators must really be gleefully rubbing their hands together on this as for once they finally hit jackpot and can finally legilate to control video games (albeit in a limited form for now...) and it actually is not only not being actively being fought by the gamer community but actually endorsed...

    Dont get me wrong i am not defending loot boxes.. in fact i can only laugh at how EA (and WB for stirring the pot to the point ppl were primed against EA) went too far with the games as a service mantra that it basically got the practice so reviled gamers are now willing for the government to start meddling something unheard of as almost everytime government has tried to legislate games it was always fought with fierce opposition because it was seen as stopping free speech

    While I do agree on some games, think of Overwatch, I know many children who play overwatch and it isn't a bad game. It too has microtransactions. I really just believe that children shouldn't be spending money in the game. not to completely ban microtransaction games to children

    Thank fuck, i hope the bill passes.

    Maybe game devs might think twice about implementing any microtransaction bullshit.

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