Loot Box Bill Officially Introduced To U.S. Senate Has Bipartisan Support
Two weeks ago, U.S. senator Josh Hawley of Missouri announced an intention to bring legislation against video game loot boxes being allowed in games for minors. The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act, or PCAGA, has been formally filed today and the text of the bill has been made available to the public for the first time, answering some questions but leaving a lot of wiggle room for many others.
You can find the full text of the bill here and a FAQ for it here. As it has not been formally read on the floor, it does not yet have a senate bill name, but it does have support from Republicans like Hawley as well as Democrats such as Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn). The bill does set out to do what Hawley described a few weeks ago, in that it establishes fines for any video game containing loot boxes or pay-to-win mechanics and even defines what those things look like.
Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, and Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, have both signed on. “Today’s digital entertainment ecosystem is an online gauntlet for children,” Markey says (via The Verge). ”Inherently manipulative game features that take advantage of kids and turn play time into pay time should be out of bounds”
The bill Hawley has proposed specifically targets “games played by minors… whose developers knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions”, or games playable by children under the age of 18 – a rather broad label that basically encompasses all games. The bill is called ‘The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act.’
Markey has served in Congress since 1976. “Today’s digital entertainment ecosystem is an online gauntlet for children,” he said. “Inherently manipulative game features that take advantage of kids and turn play time into pay time should be out of bounds.”
Under Hawley’s bill, a publisher or developer would face fines for including these features in children’s games, or allowing kids under 18 to use them in any game. Hawley has said his bill will reference COPPA in determining whether a game is aimed at children, but that may be harder than it sounds as the law seems to take that on a case-by-case basis, expecting operators to self-enforce most of its provisions.
Loot boxes attracted lawmakers notice when several controversies involving their use — most notably Star Wars Battlefront 2’s original economy boiled up in late 2017. State lawmakers in Hawaii were the first in the U.S. to propose legislation restricting or banning loot boxes, but that effort went nowhere.
From the bill’s text:
(8) LOOT BOX.—The term ‘‘loot box’’ means an add-on transaction to an interactive digital entertainment product that—
(A) in a randomized or partially randomized fashion—
(i) unlocks a feature of the product;
(ii) adds to or enhances the entertainment value of the product; or
(B) allows the user to make 1 or more additional add-on transactions—
(i) that the user could not have made without making the first add-on transaction; and
(ii) the content of which is unknown to the user until after the user has made the first add-on transaction.
That makes logical sense for how loot boxes work. Pay-to-win starts getting a little broad, however.
(7) PAY-TO-WIN MICROTRANSACTION.—
(A) IN GENERAL.—The term ‘‘pay-to-win microtransaction’’ means an add-on transaction to a [sic] interactive digital entertainment product that—
(i) with respect to an interactive digital entertainment product that, from the perspective of a reasonable user of the product, is a game offering a scoring system, a set of goals to achieve, a set of rewards, or a sense of interactive progression through the product’s content including but not limited to narrative progression—
(I) eases a user’s progression through content otherwise available within the game without the purchase of such transaction;
(II) assists a user in accomplishing an achievement within the game that can otherwise be accomplished without the purchase of such transaction;
(III) assists a user in receiving an award associated with the game that is otherwise available in association with the game without the purchase of such transaction; or
(IV) 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; or
(ii) with respect to an interactive digital entertainment product that, from the perspective of a reasonable user of the product, is a game featuring competition with other users, provides a user with a competitive advantage with respect to the game’s competitive aspects over users who do not make such a transaction.
In essence, this part of the bill is extremely broad, and seems to paint multiple grievances with a wide brush. Starting from the bottom, banning microtransactions that provide competitive advantages in multiplayer games absolutely makes sense. The part about anything that makes narrative games easier being purchasable is rather strange, however. In this instance, DLC that includes weapons stronger than the base game (as a hypothetical example, let’s say Bloodborne’s Old Hunters DLC) could be caught in the same net as a mobile game that gives you stronger weapons for a transactional fee.
Perhaps the most concerning part, however, is the part of the bill that defines what makes a game aimed at minors.
(5) MINOR-ORIENTED GAME.—The term‘‘minor-oriented video game’’ means an interactive digital entertainment product for which the target audience is individuals under the age of 18, as may be demonstrated by—
(A) the subject matter of the product;
(B) the visual content of the product;
(C) the music or audio content of the product;
(D) the use of animated characters or activities that appeal to individuals under the age of 18;
(E) the age of the characters or models in the product; (F) the presence in the product of—
(i) celebrities who are under the age of 18; or
(ii) celebrities who appeal to individuals under the age of 18;
(G) the language used in the product;
(H) the content of materials used to advertise the product and the platforms on which such materials appear;
(I) the content of any advertising materials that appear in the product;
(J) other reliable empirical evidence relating to—
(i) the composition of the audience of the product; or
(ii) the audience of the product, as in tended by the publisher or distributor of the product; or
(K) other evidence demonstrating that the product is targeted at individuals under the age of 18.
The text of the bill defines any game that targets minors as anything all-ages, anything with celebrities that are themselves under the age of 18 or appeal to people under the age of 18, any game with cartoon characters, or ill-defined music, visuals, or subject criteria. What it doesn’t use as a definition for games sold to minors is any reference to the industry-regulated Entertainment Ratings Software Board, or ESRB.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), who first raised concerns over loot boxes last fall in a hearing with the Federal Trade Commission, is not currently a cosponsor to the bill.