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US senator wants to legislate loot boxes in games targeted at children

Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act is still on the drawing board

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Freshman senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, today proposed guidelines for new legislation on loot boxes. His potential bill, which would be titled The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act, could “apply new consumer protections to games played by minors.”

His proposal, published today, includes only the barest outlines of a potential bill, which would prohibit loot boxes and pay-to-win features in video games aimed at minors. The most contentious part of the potential bill, however, may be in how it determines which video games are targeted at minors.

Hawley’s outline uses the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) as its model. To define which games are aimed at minors, that fairly broad document points to child-like avatars, kid-friendly music, and in-game hosts which also happen to be popular television characters. But Hawley’s proposed bill would also apply to “games with wider audiences whose developers knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions.” Enforcement of the potential bill would fall on the Federal Trade Commission, and also allow individual states attorneys general to file suit on behalf of their residents.

Reached for comment, the Entertainment Software Association pushed back against the potential bill’s implications. Its position is that adequate controls are already in place.

“Numerous countries, including Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, determined that loot boxes do not constitute gambling,” said Stanley Pierre-Louis, the acting president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association. “We look forward to sharing with the senator the tools and information the industry already provides that keeps the control of in-game spending in parents’ hands. Parents already have the ability to limit or prohibit in-game purchases with easy to use parental controls.”

Loot boxes have been a point of contention with consumers for years now. The issue most recently came to a head during the 2017 holiday season, when consumer backlash led Electronic Arts to revise their implementation in Star Wars Battlefront 2. One year later, the FTC itself announced that it was looking into the matter. Meanwhile, social media giant Facebook may have known it was defrauding children and families through its ecosystem of online games as early as 2011.

Hawley could represent a serious new threat to the games industry. At 39, he’s the youngest current member of the Senate. He rose to prominence as one of the lead attorneys in the historic Hobby Lobby case, which he argued successfully before the Supreme Court.

His efforts there reinforced the so-called “religious freedom” rights of corporations as though they were individuals. As a result, companies are now allowed to withhold medical coverage for contraception from their employees. Hawley is now well placed within the legislative branch. He currently sits on the powerful Senate Judiciary committee as well as the Small Business and Entrepreneurship committee.

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