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Weeks ago, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) released an outline for the The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act, aimed at stopping randomized loot boxes and pay-to-win mechanics in the game industry. Today, Hawley was joined by Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in formally introducing that bill in the Senate, complete with an 18-page draft of its legislative text.
Perhaps the most interesting portion of the bill attempts to define so-called “pay-to-win” mechanics in games. Those are defined broadly here as purchasable content that “assists a user in accomplishing an achievement within the game that can otherwise be accomplished without the purchase of such transaction” or which “permits a user to continue to access content of the game that had previously been accessible to the user but has been made inaccessible after the expiration of a timer or a number of gameplay attempts.”
For multiplayer games, this would also include any purchasable in-game content that “from the perspective of a reasonable user, provides a competitive advantage.”
As far as loot boxes are concerned, the act targets games where purchasable in-game content is randomized or partially randomized. This includes games where you purchase one item for the chance to purchase unknown or random items in the future, closing one potential loophole before it even starts.
Any games fitting the above definitions would be illegal to publish or sell under the act, provided those games were shown to be “minor-oriented” (based on guidelines similar to those laid out in COPPA) or that publishers had “constructive knowledge” that some players were under 18. The FTC and state attorneys general would have authority to enforce the act via civil penalties, and the FTC would be required to release a report on compliance within two years of its passage.
“The onus should be on developers to deter child consumption of products that foster gambling and similarly compulsive purchasing behavior, just as is true in other industries that restrict access to certain kinds of products and forms of entertainment to adult consumers,” according to an FAQ on the bill from Hawley's office.
A huge potential reach
The expansive definitions for prohibited content in this act would have far-reaching consequences across the game industry. In mobile gaming, ultra-popular mobile titles from Candy Crush Saga to Clash of Clans, and countless games in between, use gameplay timers and in-game items to gate progress as almost a matter of course.
Separately, major games ranging from FIFA to Overwatch rely on randomized loot boxes for the vast majority of their revenue these days. Rulings against loot boxes in Belgium and The Netherlands have forced major publishers to stop selling games in those countries. But the United States is an overwhelmingly larger market where similar prohibitions could have a much larger effect on these publishers' bottom lines.
“These are very resourceful people, and I'm sure they can design games that don't rely on gambling directed at children in the center of the game,” Sen. Hawley told Kotaku in a recent interview.
Today's introduction brings legislation on these issues one step closer to a reality. But similar legislation will also have to be introduced in the House and survive likely committee hearings and markups in both chambers before it can even get to a full vote by all legislators and potential signature by the president.
“Certainly, the reception we have gotten from parents [and] from gamers has been absolutely tremendous,” Hawley told Kotaku regarding the bill's prospects for passage. “I think it's an issue that more and more people are going to care about as they learn about it, and it'll be the start of a broader conversation.” (Sen. Hawley has not responded to a request for comment from Ars Technica)
Lobbying groups including as Focus on the Family, Common Sense Media, the Parents Television Council, and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood offered support for the bill in a statement.
The introduction of the act comes after Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) separately urged the FTC to look into loot box regulation early last year. The FTC plans to convene a workshop on the issue later in 2019.