To regulate certain pay-to-win microtransactions
June 1, 2019 11:42 PM   Subscribe

On May 23, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), joined by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), introduced the Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act, which would ban lootboxes and microtransactions from videogames marketed to minors. (Bill text on scribd; Google Doc version.)

The Verge: Bill to ban the sale of loot boxes to children presses forward with bipartisan support: “Today’s digital entertainment ecosystem is an online gauntlet for children,” Markey said of the loot box bill. “Inherently manipulative game features that take advantage of kids and turn play time into pay time should be out of bounds.”

Kotaku: U.S. Senator Says His Anti-Loot Box Bill Has The Video Game Industry Worried: I have to be honest with you, Jason, I am not myself a gamer, so it does not stem from my personal experience. It stems from being a parent of two little boys and talking to lots of parents, and also hearing, by the way, from lots of gamers who are concerned about what the C-suite is doing here, basically adding casinos to children’s games.

Polygon: Anti-loot box bill could radically change how video games are sold: The bill would specifically prohibit pay-to-win microtransactions and loot boxes “in minor-oriented games,” meaning games that are geared toward children under 18. That seems fair enough. But the proposed bill would go even further than that. It would also prohibit pay-to-win microtransactions and loot boxes in games “where the publisher or distributor has constructive knowledge that any users are under age 18.”

Gamasutra: Proposed anti-loot box bill has big implications for devs and publishers: That places the burden on publishers and distributors to ensure their games -- even those targeted at people over the age of 18 -- aren't falling into the hands of minors, raising questions about the inclusion of loot boxes and microtransactions in mature-rated titles like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, which have a tendency to find their way into the hands of minors.

Ars Technica: Senator Hawley announces bill banning loot boxes, pay-to-win mechanics: Despite Hawley's announcement, though, the Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act still has a long way to go before becoming law. First, the summary announced today would have to be translated into actual legislative language. That bill would then have to proceed through committee (likely following hearings), then pass the House of Representatives and Senate before being signed by the president. None of that seems especially urgent or likely in the near term, given other political priorities and continuing gridlock in the legislature.

This ties into other legislative efforts to block lootboxes, like last year's legal ruling in Belgium. (Previously.)

This would gut the current video game industry. The ban on microtransactions is worded in a way that would shut down every kid-friendly game that uses "premium currency" that you earn slowly through play or quickly by paying, and depending on how strictly "constructive knowledge" is interpreted, could shut down a lot of presumably adults-only games like fantasy sports leagues.

On the one hand, that's a harsh set of changes to make. On the other, when Facebook developed a way to reduce unwanted expenditures but chose not to implement it, it's hard to blame legislators for an approach that's basically "shut it all down."
posted by ErisLordFreedom (68 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
This ban seems to cover all games, because almost all games are at least partially targeted to minors. Which is fine, but I think not just banning it outright might make sense from a "bipartisan legislative support" perspective, but essentially creates a bunch of perverse incentives towards rules-lawyering and makes it an enforcement nightmare.
posted by JauntyFedora at 12:20 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]


It wouldn't just shut down "kid-friendly" games that use loot boxes, it's a de facto loot box ban.

Section 1b: PROHIBITION ON PUBLICATION OR DISTRIBUTION OF VIDEO GAMES CONTAINING PAY-TO-WIN MICRO-TRANSACTIONS OR PURCHASING LOOT BOXES WHERE THE PUBLISHER OR DISTRIBUTOR HAS CONSTRUCTIVE KNOWLEDGE THAT ANY USERS ARE UNDER AGE 18.

Constructive Knowledge: "For example, constructive knowledge is notice of a fact that a person is presumed by law to have, regardless of whether he or she actually does, since such knowledge is obtainable by the exercise of reasonable care."

That makes it sound an awful like unless a publisher or distributor puts their game behind "YOU MUST BE 18 OR OLDER TO PLAY" warning at the minimum, loot boxes are banned. That's not just a ban in minor oriented games, that's pretty much every game because no publisher is going to do that.
posted by Punkey at 12:26 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]


I realized that, in addition to forcing publishers to put all microtransaction games behind a "MUST BE 18+ TO PLAY" barrier, they'd have to block all (known) minors from their forums online, because they can't risk someone saying, "I'm 15 and I play this game."

I play Flight Rising, and I'm pretty sure it'd be destroyed by this legislation. I'm not sure if Steam would have to remove its trading-card-pack feature. It might destroy Steam's summer/winter sale minigames, where you get festival loot for activities, or for buying games during the festival. (Maybe those are all "cosmetic" and won't matter, though.)

But the legislation's in the early stages, so there's time for people to come up with alternative phrasing that targets the predatory games while still allowing some microtransactions. Maybe allowing them has to have limits - a $ amount per month, or a notification-and-permission system that gets increasingly more complex over the month.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:49 AM on June 2


Maybe I am an old, but I feel like microtransactions are the effing worst. Sell the game, make it subscription based, but don't nickel and dime users. Additionally, isn't offering loot boxes just gambling anyway? I don't understand how they are legal in the first place.
posted by Literaryhero at 1:49 AM on June 2 [97 favorites]


I think the focus on "loot boxes" is strange. If there once was a time when the most addictive thing about games was the uncertainty of taking a gamble, that time is like five hundred miles in the rear-view mirror being beaten to death by World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and League of Legends. If you want to protect kids from handing all their parent's money to game companies, then ban games that allow you to pay more than some cap. If you want to protect kids from spending all of their time absorbed in mindless addictive games, then ban games that allow kids to play for indefinite intervals of time.
posted by value of information at 1:54 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]


This would gut the current video game industry. The ban on microtransactions is worded in a way that would shut down every kid-friendly game that uses "premium currency" that you earn slowly through play or quickly by paying, and depending on how strictly "constructive knowledge" is interpreted, could shut down a lot of presumably adults-only games like fantasy sports leagues.

Video games were profitable before any of these things existed.
posted by srboisvert at 3:03 AM on June 2 [83 favorites]


I am fine with this, microtransactions and the plain straight fucking gambling trainers that some games have become grosses me out and really fucks up stuff for especially younger players. It also makes it difficult to have the discussion about "video game addiction" which I would argue doesn't exist but it a symptom. Gambling addiction methods getting mixed up in that muddies the waters.
My relative revealed that he spends the best part of $200 per season on Overwatch loot-boxes, and that's just one of many games he plays that has microtransactions and this type of lucky-dip mechanic.
posted by Iteki at 3:05 AM on June 2 [31 favorites]


That's not just a ban in minor oriented games, that's pretty much every game because no publisher is going to do that.

Good. And hopefully this is one of those things where the US banning it de facto bans it elsewhere.

If there once was a time when the most addictive thing about games was the uncertainty of taking a gamble, that time is like five hundred miles in the rear-view mirror being beaten to death by World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and League of Legends

Could you explain a little more? Loot boxes as I've encountered them are just pokie machines with a mask, and the idea that WoW is anywhere near as significant a danger to the youths of today is really not one I'm familiar with.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 3:06 AM on June 2 [11 favorites]


This would gut the current video game industry.

Dear video game industry,

git gud.

Your friend,
a gamer.
posted by biffa at 3:26 AM on June 2 [65 favorites]


Good riddance. These things just make games worse. I'm sick of games that are clearly trying to be juuuust good enough to entice you to pay for a bunch of in-game stuff, and are deliberately frustrating and grindy to make you do so. There are a lot of games where I would LOVE to just pay to unlock the whole game instead of this stupid microtransaction dance where some things cost *special* currency that is increasingly difficult to get.

Paying for loot boxes IS gambling though. I'm surprised they got away with it for so long. Nothing of value will be lost.
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:34 AM on June 2 [16 favorites]


I wonder how this would interact with something like MTG arena or hearthstone. Purchasing card packs is similar to but not the same as loot boxes.
posted by Ferreous at 4:13 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]


This would gut the current video game industry.

Is that a promise?

I love videogames, but the industry has in the last 10-15 years turned to increasingly vile business models that amount to, "if it's not illegal we'll pretend it's not unethical". They have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can't be trusted to clean this up without being forced to with legal sanctions. Fuck 'em.
posted by tocts at 4:17 AM on June 2 [52 favorites]


Seems like this is a start to try to catch up to players already active against greed and loot boxes
posted by eustatic at 4:26 AM on June 2


Yeah, we really, really cannot justify the proliferation of unregulated gambling among children on the basis that it funds games we like.

When Facebook and Google serve up deeply shady shit, users at least tend to complain about it; gamers getting the same thing often seem to congratulate the chef and order another portion.
posted by howfar at 4:47 AM on June 2 [18 favorites]


I wonder how this would interact with something like MTG arena or hearthstone. Purchasing card packs is similar to but not the same as loot boxes.

The wording of the bill at the moment is super broad, and it would definitely cover card packs as both "loot boxes" and "pay-to-win microtransactions". It looks like they've tried pretty hard to anticipate obvious loopholes (selling in-game currencies that can be used to buy lootboxes in an obfuscated way, selling "premium" subscriptions that give access to lootbox mechanics, making the game really hard then selling an easy mode, etc.) as well.

I wonder if it has a chance of passing? Probably not, but it would be funny to watch if it did.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:50 AM on June 2 [3 favorites]


I rarely buy or install (the free ones) games, apps, or applications that encourage micro transactions. In fact I vote with my dollars. I tend to prefer games without in-app purchases.

I will often buy "season passes" for games that plan downloadable content (DLC) depending on the game. And I also bias toward games that support mods and modding communities.

But I especially don't like games that constantly tempt with power ups and grind-quickening purchases. On occasion I will find and play a game like this that I find somehow compelling but so far I've avoided paying micro transaction fees more than, I'm pretty sure, once. And it was years ago and it made me feel like such a chump that I never did it again.
posted by kalessin at 5:00 AM on June 2 [4 favorites]


Every time I have a conversation about Magic: the Gathering, I ask "isn't it kind of pay-to-win?" and some long-time players will protest that there are lots of fun ways to play the game that aren't PTW. But then some other long-time players will sheepishly admit that, yeah, the whole design of the game is basically PTW.
posted by rikschell at 5:03 AM on June 2 [12 favorites]


Video games were profitable before any of these things existed.

As Jim Sterling is fond of pointing out, it's not enough anymore for companies to make a lot of money. They need to make all the money. (See also Activision/Blizzard announcing its most profitable year to date by a large margin and, because they didn't make as much money as they felt entitled to, laying off hundreds of people.)
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:45 AM on June 2 [22 favorites]


The Only Winning Move.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:49 AM on June 2


I hate the current state of gaming. But I also love playing video games.

We need to send a signal to these gaming companies. Not only do gaming companies exploit their customers, they also exploit their workers. Burn it all. We need to start over.

And if this means not having games in the interim while the industry tries to reset and course corrects. Then so be it. It's worth it, and I say this as the most ardent fan of gaming.
posted by Fizz at 5:54 AM on June 2 [15 favorites]


We’ve had a video game industry crash before, in 1983. The industry came back from it.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:06 AM on June 2


I know nothing about gaming, but am compelled to note that Josh Hawley is a lying, grifting, right-wing scumbag, and everything he says and does should be evaluated with that in mind.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 6:19 AM on June 2 [4 favorites]


I'm not opposed to in-app purchases, as long as you get what you pay for and it doesn't affect game play. Buying hats or skins or emotes is fine. But "see what you get" loot boxes should be eliminated.
posted by SPrintF at 6:58 AM on June 2 [5 favorites]


Aside from raw, unadulterated greed, the microtransaction mess we’re in is because it now costs >$100 million to make an AAA game, but games are still $59.99, the same as an SNES cartridge cost in 1994. It’s even worse now once you factor in 25 years of inflation. I think there’s a genuine fear that consumers would balk at paying $90 for the newest Call of Modern Warfare, so instead we get day-one DLC and gambling.
posted by higginba at 7:03 AM on June 2 [3 favorites]


Magic: the Gathering. It's right there in the name. We might have once though "gathering" is a noun, but it's a verb.
posted by glonous keming at 7:09 AM on June 2 [5 favorites]


So maybe the wording of this is currently to broad but

Essentially this is banning people from buying the stastical chance that something (digital, unreal, unable to be resold or used elsewhere, which costs the company litterally nothing to duplicate after initial creation) will improve game play. This needs to stop.

I am for that 100 percent. I am scared that cell phone games litterally have $100.00 options just available to purchase whatever current to purchase boxes where the chance of getting the thing that one would want is. 1 in... I don't know? It is gambling. And people get sucked in, for no reward. When you win... you get some digital code the game you pay... Better until they code it in away you need the next gamble.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:10 AM on June 2 [5 favorites]


Good. Do social media next.

Anything that is designed to be addictive and extract money on the basis of that addiction should be regulated to fucking hell and back.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:13 AM on June 2 [6 favorites]


Just as blind boxes in video games are a form of gambling, physical card packs are a form of gambling. Does this have implications to M:tG and Pokemon card game purchasers? We have had this mechanism for a long time.

I don't disagree that some regulation should happen, but I worry that this particular bill will not just ban it for children, but for everyone.
posted by demiurge at 7:26 AM on June 2 [3 favorites]


I worry that this particular bill will not just ban it for children, but for everyone

I worry that it won't ban it for everyone outside of really stringently regulated spaces. There's a reason that gambling is generally highly regulated, and it's not just "for the children". It's a business model that succeeds based in large part on the fact that some people won't be able to partake in it responsibly, and will basically ruin their lives chasing dopamine rushes. I'm pretty fine with the idea that shit that dangerous should not be OK even for adults except under really heavy oversight.
posted by tocts at 7:31 AM on June 2 [14 favorites]


But at least with physical cards they 1) cost to manufacture the physical item 2) can be resold to other players (or you can just buy the item at it's market cost from a store or person) and 3) can never be deleted. In some cases the online games that people spend this money on can just...cease operations. And you lose it all. None of it (even the good items) are resellable ever. It is just gone.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:33 AM on June 2 [15 favorites]


I know nothing about gaming, but am compelled to note that Josh Hawley is a lying, grifting, right-wing scumbag, and everything he says and does should be evaluated with that in mind.

More to the point, he's also openly admitted that he knows nothing about games and gaming. He's pushing this bill not out of any genuine consideration, but solely because it polls well.

He's basically Joe Lieberman without the charm.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:51 AM on June 2 [7 favorites]


Video games and app stores are already responsible for making sure minors aren't engaging in unauthorized transactions (i.e., those where their parents haven't given permission), and they cannot be arsed because it's more profitable to break the law. They have decided that returning money when parents complain and periodically being subjected to massive class actions for knowingly engaging in transactions with minors is just the cost of doing business.

If at any point the gaming companies acted like they intended to comply with laws they are already subject to, regarding minors and gambling and I'm sure there are others, they probably wouldn't be facing massively more onerous regulation.

(Next someone needs to take on non-removable ads in games rated "E" because it's super-great when porny and misogynistic ads pop up on some game intended for five-year-olds.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:20 AM on June 2 [23 favorites]


I've seen the resellability argument before, but I don't really understand it. It seems to me that if the contents of the loot box/card pack/whatever can be resold for real money, that makes it more gambly than if they can't be exchanged for anything else of value rather than less.

Some of the more significant differences between physical card packs and loot boxes, which I think justify treating them differently:
* It's much easier and more convenient to press a button on a phone or computer and have the loot box delivered instantly than it is to get hold of a pack of physical cards and open them.
* There's only so much that you can do to make the act of opening a pack of cards addictive; games can do a lot more by integrating loot boxes into gameplay, adding visual and sound effects, automatically announcing your latest lootz to nearby players etc.
* A card manufacturer can't fine-tune the odds/algorithm for each individual player to give them a reinforcement schedule calibrated to extract maximum value just from them, which I think it's safe to assume is how most loot boxes work.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:24 AM on June 2 [5 favorites]


Note that the US is not leading here; many other countries have been tackling the question of predatory gaming business models. Here's a roundup around the world from about a year ago and Wikipedia has more. Belgium is a standout in regulating loot boxes as gambling; many US games have special exceptions in Belgium as a result. China and Korea both responded by forcing game companies to publish probabilities of results from loot boxes; the slot machine may be rigged, but at least you now know how rigged it is.
posted by Nelson at 8:45 AM on June 2 [7 favorites]


Game companies hire psychologists to determine how to reinforce addictive behaviors ("captology"), while the developers are tasked with monetizing the gameplay mechanics. I'm completely fine with regulating cognitive manipulation and addiction choices by age, just as we do casinos, smoking, etc.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:55 AM on June 2 [19 favorites]


Even without a degree or training in psychology, I can see the term "microtransaction" get used by the relevant businesses as a way to make the associated financial interaction sound more innocuous, harmless, or even trendy or cutting edge, while the larger transactional picture is nothing "micro", at all.

When the language used is deliberately manipulative and aims to conceal the reality of what it describes, at least as it relates to this subject, some degree of caution and scrutiny seems merited.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:15 AM on June 2


Microtransactions are the meta-data of finance. They pretend to be close to nothing, but they are everything.

I do see differences between physical products in random packs versus digital content slot machines. But, even if they are regarded as the same, is that a reason not to stop this practice? I hope this goes somewhere.
posted by meinvt at 9:21 AM on June 2


The first time I've ever been in favor of government regulation of video-games...
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:52 AM on June 2 [4 favorites]


This all just makes me think that I should have reigned this shit in with my kids from the get go. As a parent at least I can control access to the credit card and can refuse to install games with in-app purchases. And I should but I don’t. Which is a crappy reason to call in the nanny state, but it would certainly make this one aspect of parenting easier.

I think even worse are the games that give you bonuses for watching an ad. There’s no warning or control over any of that shit. When did I tell SYBO it was ok to pay my kids to be marketed to?

The best outcome is that this payment model for gaming dies a horrible death because people refuse to put up with it but I seriously don’t see that happening (given that there are about 6 Billion smart phones being used for games by people with much less disposable income than me) which leaves me with having to take away games the kids have already started getting their dopamine hit from or even taking away the idea of games completely.

For real, it has been so hard to resist the pearl-clutching “what about the children?” paranoia about video games. It’s like the industry wants me to remove games from my home.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:51 AM on June 2 [3 favorites]


Knowing that rules (laws) are made to be gamed (lawyered, hacked), I wonder if someone could make an argument that all games that cost money have to be deterministic? Now that would destroy the computer game industry. Note: I am not arguing that that's what the law says, I'm asking if someone could make a reasonable argument for its being interpreted that way.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 11:06 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]


More to the point, he's also openly admitted that he knows nothing about games and gaming. He's pushing this bill not out of any genuine consideration, but solely because it polls well.

You don't have to play video games yourself to have kids who play video games or to know other parents who have kids who do and to see the negative impact of loot boxes and pay-to-win microtransactions. I know a young kid who's still putting all his paper route money towards the hundreds of dollars of in-game micro-purchases he made last Fall (in just the time between when his parents installed the game on their console and their next credit card statement), allegedly without realizing he was spending real money.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 11:12 AM on June 2 [5 favorites]


Lately I've been playing a lot of Breath of the Wild with my nearly-six-year-old. Maybe three weeks ago she discovered the existence of the gambling hut in one of the villages. Literally you pay the guy $x to play a guessing game, and have a 1/3 chance of winning $3 * x. In a world full of magical weapons, reclusive forest dwellers hiding in plain sight, high royalty fighting an ancient evil, and ethereal motorcycles (hell yeah we beat the DLC together and now we go tooling around Faron on the Zero Cycle), now all she wants to do is go gamble virtual currency at the damned lottery office in Lurelin Village. It has been eye-opening, to say the least. Loot box-driven games pay psychologists big money to figure out how to convince grown-ass adults, with nominal impulse control and fully-developed amygdalas, to part with as much of their money as possible. They then turn this lens on children, who by definition have underdeveloped impulse control and a huge predilection for compulsive behaviors. At the point where you're targeting that kind of thing at kids, you're banking on the fact that the only thing that will slow them from maxing out their parents' credit cards is their parents. That's the most evil goddamn thing I've heard all week. They deserve to have their offices burnt to the ground and the earth salted.

Now I just have to figure out why a Republican senator is sponsoring the effort, because usually when you start talking about making fistfuls of cash by exploiting the underclass, you get unanimous Republican enthusiasm--for Hawley to be supporting this, it must have a clause in it about taking candy away from from orphans or something.
posted by Mayor West at 11:46 AM on June 2 [17 favorites]


Video games were profitable before any of these things existed.

Online, server-based video games were not. Games that you bought and ran on your own hardware were profitable; games where the producing company had to maintain the data for all the players didn't catch on until microtransactions were designed to cover the day-to-day operating expenses. (And, well, venture capitalist funding, which is where the evil comes in. But plenty of smaller games just use them to cover operating costs.)

There's room here for an argument in favor of a lot more "buy it and own it" games, which the software industry is trying to get away from. But there are also a lot of games where people love the social/interactive aspects, and someone has to pay to maintain those servers.

And maybe we have to accept the loss of innocuous MMOs like the dragon breeding games (there are several) and browser-only farming/quest games. Maybe there's no way to phrase legislation that targets the worst of the predatory behaviors without ending a whole lot of people's favorite games that aren't causing any harm.

I can think of other approaches, but they (1) require extensive knowledge of how gaming works, and (2) would also require specific code features, and I'm not sure we could legislate those. I.e. "Players must be allowed to set a spending threshold that cannot be changed without a verification email." "Spending more than $20/month causes a popup that shows the total expenses this month to appear, and sets off a requirement to re-enter your device password to continue. Spending more than $100/month requires re-validating your expense method." Just putting in a device-password requirement on expenses would do a lot to curb 8-year-olds from racking up charges.

But something like that would need to come from within the industry, like the rating system did; it couldn't be decided by Congress who have no idea how gaming works and how those would be implemented on different kinds of games.

On the one hand: I really, really want the microtransaction (MT?) and lootbox industries destroyed. On the other: I do not trust any Republican senator's approach to fix "people are wasting money in ways I don't approve of."

(Also, it's troublesome that this legislature doesn't affect microtransactions that are purely for cosmetic changes. They don't think kids can rack up $1500 worth of charges buying bells and ribbons for their horse and a purple velvet cloak for their character avatar?)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:09 PM on June 2


I think even worse are the games that give you bonuses for watching an ad.

As far as I can tell, this would still be entirely legal. We could expect ads to become a LOT more invasive, with subscription fees for the no-ads version of the game. Or maybe there can be "half hour without ads" microtransactions.

I'm still trying to sort through the language of the bill to see if that would be allowed, but it looks like it could be.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:18 PM on June 2


He's basically Joe Lieberman Ted Cruz without the charm.

Yeah, Hawley is much worse than Lieberman, he's about as scummy as it is possible for a politician to be.

This appears to be a move cribbed from the playbook of Missouri's senior senator, Roy Blunt: Attach your name to one bill per session that seems like some sort of "reform," and then use that as cover to stay away from your state and avoid your constituents, while continuing to grift & do the bidding of wealthy donors 24/7/365.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 12:20 PM on June 2


Game companies hire psychologists to determine how to reinforce addictive behaviors ("captology"), while the developers are tasked with monetizing the gameplay mechanics.

taquito boyfriend used to work for a big mobile games company & the products they make are 100% cash grabs preying on human psychology in a pre-regulated space. Kids spending a few hundred bucks is the least of it; the biggest spenders drop like $10K a month, on a shitty mobile game that was only ever designed to take their money, never to be a fun experience or reward prosocial behavior or give the user anything of value.

It's real gross; burn it the fuck down
posted by taquito sunrise at 12:28 PM on June 2 [20 favorites]


(Also, it's troublesome that this legislature doesn't affect microtransactions that are purely for cosmetic changes. They don't think kids can rack up $1500 worth of charges buying bells and ribbons for their horse and a purple velvet cloak for their character avatar?)

Actually, the bigger issue here is the dismissal of fashion and social activities as a major driver of player interaction - there's a reason that "fashion is the true endgame" is a longrunning ha-ha-but-serious joke among online games with a social component that allow players to customize their appearance. Remember, one of the most bitterly fought complaints in Destiny 2 was how cosmetic engrams were put behind microtransations.

Which, again, comes back to "Josh Hawley has no understanding of the matter, has no desire to understand the matter, and is going after this more because it plays well than out of any actual desire to fix the matter."
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:31 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


It's real gross; burn it the fuck down

Yep.

There's an ad-supported game I played on my iPhone called HAWK that the devs rejiggered recently, because it was too easy to play without paying, even if you watch 30 second ads.

A lot of what is discussed here is in this game, including power-ups only available through lootboxes and similar paid extras, where the game is now impossible to progress through without buying these expansions.

If it involves exploitation, burn it all down.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:37 PM on June 2 [4 favorites]


But something like that would need to come from within the industry, like the rating system did; it couldn't be decided by Congress who have no idea how gaming works and how those would be implemented on different kinds of games.

I think there may have been a time when such a thing could have happened, but we're about a decade beyond it. I feel at this point towards the videogame publishers as I do towards ad pushers, which is to say that they could have as an industry chosen to work towards sustainable business models that didn't result in the public wanting their industry to burn to the ground, but they didn't, and now that's where we are (and it's their fault).
posted by tocts at 12:42 PM on June 2 [11 favorites]


It seems pretty fair to me; if you drop the "constructive knowledge" provision, then you create a defense that the publisher didn't know that minors were playing their game, which is very difficult to dismantle. It would render the law pretty toothless.

Given that pay-to-win game developers are, as far as I'm concerned, some of the lowest of the low in terms of games developers, who are themselves some of the lowest of the low in terms of software developers overall (mostly because of their treatment of employees as an industry, not because of any lack of technical or artistic merit of the medium), I really don't have much sympathy for them. The industry should probably be more heavily regulated than it is, and as long as the government isn't censoring content for political or ideological reasons, I'm not sure I especially care. They could gut free-to-play microtransaction games completely—total ban, corporate death penalty for anything that looks or smells like an in-game cashgrab—and they're going to get a big ol' shrug from me. Fuck 'em. I'll bring the marshmallows; let's watch this house burn.

Let's go back to shrink wrap and cardboard boxes; at least then you had a pretty good idea of what you were going to spend for so many hours of gameplay, and every player was on an equal footing once they ponied up for the game itself.

If games publishers want to do microtransaction games, they should stop lying to the public (and their developers, and themselves) and admit that they're really making slot machine software that lives outside of slot machines. And no shit that's illegal. Go sell slot machines—which are regulated for a reason—if that's the UX you're emulating, which so many crappy mobile games are.

I don't trust any industry at this point, including the computer games industry, to self-regulate. Industrial self-regulation has proved itself over and over to be a sham, effective only insofar as it's motivated by the fear of real regulation. In other words, it only exists where there's a fear of (actual, no shit, done by people capable of making the "last argument of kings") regulation, so it's really viewed as a very weak-sauce version of same. And since it tends to be carried out with less accountability than the government, and can also be a vehicle for established industrial players to build 'moats' and crush competition, I don't think it's really even a worthy substitute. The MPAA's movie ratings system, from which the ESRB is styled, is a perfect example of opaque and incestuous industrial self-regulation that's probably worse than if we just had straightforward government ratings standards.

And yes, I know, that's probably seemingly absurd because our government is such a fucking dumpster fire of awfulness right now. Nonetheless, I think that will self-correct, while industrial self-regulatory bodies are such a flawed concept that they never will. They don't have the proper incentives to be effective regulators, period.

The other common argument for industrial self-regulation, which is that "people in government don't know the industry well enough to regulate it!" is a legitimate criticism of government hiring, but still isn't a compelling reason for gutting actual arms-length regulation by the folks with guns and a mandate to use them, in favor of regulation by those with a vested interest in not being regulated. Increase regulatory agencies' budgets and let them do more market-rate hiring and that problem will be solved *snaps fingers* like that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:06 PM on June 2 [9 favorites]


Remember, one of the most bitterly fought complaints in Destiny 2 was how cosmetic engrams were put behind microtransations.

Destiny is interesting because at first it didn't have microtransactions at all, and you could watch the developers experiment with how to introduce them without pissing off the player base too much. It didn't always work.

By the time that Destiny 2 came out they had worked out a formula: Have a few cosmetic items you could only buy. Have some gear that you could only earn through gameplay. And then, have special, limited time gear that that you could earn through gameplay or by purchasing extra lootboxes. If you spent a lot of time trying to get an armor set, or whatever, it would be even more tempting to purchase extra lootboxes in order to complete it before the set went away.

I don't trust this bill at all, but at the very least we need to do something about paid lootboxes.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:10 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


I wonder how they expect to enforce this on game companies that aren't centered in the US.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:37 PM on June 2


I used to play a very addictive and manipulative gacha game, the source of a lot of this pay to play mechanic. For me it was a relief when the publisher shut down the US version a year ago, and I stopped playing.

The hard core addicts switched to the native Japanese version despite the language barrier and the technical problems of using a foreign App Store. That’s the trouble of shutting it down in one country.
posted by w0mbat at 5:35 PM on June 2


Online, server-based video games were not. Games that you bought and ran on your own hardware were profitable; games where the producing company had to maintain the data for all the players didn't catch on until microtransactions were designed to cover the day-to-day operating expenses.

What?

Subscription-based MMOs enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) profitable existences for over a decade before the advent of microtransactions. You've maybe heard of EverQuest? World Of Warcraft? EVE?
posted by multics at 6:42 PM on June 2 [7 favorites]


I am one hundred percent okay with this even if it targets all games. Regulate it like actual gambling.
posted by corb at 7:21 PM on June 2 [7 favorites]


EVE evolved lootboxes as a player-created emergent gameplay. These player-run casinos were based on in-game currency and prizes and out-of-game drawings/gambling games. It grew to a point where biggest casino had enough in-game wealth to bankroll the war that displaced Goonswarm from Deklein. Eventually the game developer had to ban player casinos because it was warping the in-game economy too much.
posted by ryanrs at 7:57 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


"I wonder how they expect to enforce this on game companies that aren't centered in the US."

They just won't be allowed to sell in the US. It's a lot simpler than a lot of attempts to regulate multinationals or foreign corporations. Belgium is a tiny market but provides an example; games either adapt the entire structure; create an exception for Belgium; or don't operate in Belgium. Because Belgium is small, a lot of games just aren't available there.

A lot of small countries are looking forward to the US doing this because the US is such a behemoth in terms of gaming dollars that companies will adapt to the US market, and they will either get rid of lootboxes or create a US-compliant version; smaller countries that want to ban lootboxes can then go ahead and do so with the knowledge that they'll get the US-compliant version instead of being locked out of 80% of the mobile gaming market.

(The GDPR actually provides a relatively similar example; the bigger mobile games all managed to introduce GDPR-compliant versions by the deadline. For the most part they provided GDPR-compliant versions to EU customers and kept sucking down all the sweet sweet data of non-EU customers. It was too big a market to lose. Any country that piggybacks on GDPR privacy regulations to create a substantially-similar regime will just get the EU-compliant version and when you sign up you'll be asked "click here if you are a citizen of the EU, Malawi, or Vietnam; click here for everywhere else" and be given your terms and conditions based on that.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:59 PM on June 2 [5 favorites]


You've maybe heard of EverQuest? World Of Warcraft? EVE?

Oh yes, those famous games you purchased and then never paid the developer $9-$15 a month for the privilege of being able to continue to play the game. No one ever paid Activison/Blizzard $1.5k+ during the pre-micro-transaction decade you are referencing.
posted by sideshow at 9:12 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Now I just have to figure out why a Republican senator is sponsoring the effort, because usually when you start talking about making fistfuls of cash by exploiting the underclass, you get unanimous Republican enthusiasm

People enjoy video games and Republicans are generally opposed to enjoying things. So the Republicans sponsoring this think of video games like they think of sex, drugs, pornography, vaping, or alcohol. Maybe there's fistfuls of cash on the table, but people would enjoy parting with that cash. And we can't have that.

(Tobacco is an interesting exception -- probably because people who actually enjoy smoking have almost no voice in mainstream discourse. We only ever hear from people trying and usually failing to quit. I imagine if the happy, ever so slightly buzzed, smoker became a common trope, Republicans would immediately turn on Big Tobacco, lobbying dollars be damned.)
posted by great_radio at 10:08 PM on June 2


I know that I'm old now that there are Senators named Josh.
posted by bendy at 10:09 PM on June 2 [10 favorites]


I wonder how they expect to enforce this on game companies that aren't centered in the US.

Same way they enforce anti-gambling laws. Online gambling is legal in many parts of the world, but good luck participating in it from within the US. The financial companies basically end up acting as the enforcers; with no way to transfer money to the companies, you just can't do it.

There are always ways around it, of course. You can open a foreign bank account (I know some professional poker players who did this, during the time when US online poker was basically eliminated), you can use cryptocurrencies, you can buy mysterious stuff through seemingly-unaffiliated web stores that result in you suddenly getting 'free' credits deposited in your gaming account... but it's not something a casual player is going to do.

You've maybe heard of EverQuest? World Of Warcraft? EVE?

EverQuest and WoW were the other way around from pay-to-win games. I mean, literally, they were more like "win-to-play", if you were one of the vanishingly small minority of players who funded their subscription with in-game currency. And TBH, I don't think either game would have been ruined if this mechanic had just been eliminated and there hadn't been any way of paying your monthly fee with in-game currency. It was a way the developers had of giving the in-game currency some real-world value, much like a government creates value (in MMT, anyway) out of its fiat currency by accepting it as payment for taxes, and requiring everyone to pay taxes. I'm not convinced this is really necessary, and other games have in-game currencies that are totally disconnected from the real world and function fine (you just need a way to take money in and out of circulation; paying NPCs for items which wear out works fine). There are lots of other levers you can pull to control inflation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:40 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Subscription-based games introduce an interesting wrinkle: Steve Bannon got his start by facilitating people wanting to spend real money for powerlevelling and gold wow gold cheap wow gold. Several of the later MMOs adapted by shrugging their shoulders and allowing people to straight up buy in-game currency, while carefully adjusting their in-game economies so that in-game currency wasn't sufficient to get everything you wanted.

This bill makes that adaptation illegal without affecting the legality of third parties offering the same service.
posted by Merus at 2:39 AM on June 3


One thing worth noting is that while in app purchases, lootboxes, etc are so critical to the financial success of almost all mobile games, and an increasing number of PC and console games, the actual economics are worth considering especially for how they warp gameplay and design.

Small purchases of in game items are, to the company, basically irrelevant. They chase the whales, a term they took from casinos. In game development, whales are users who spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars on in game items. In a very real sense mobile games are designed for the whales, and all other users are there because without them the game would seem kind of empty and the whales wouldn't be happy with that.

Not that they turn down the tiny trickle of money from non-whale users, but they aren't really geared for taking advantage of the long tail.

My point?

Expect this bill to face some serious organized opposition and multiple astroturfing campaigns to try to convince lawmakers that America hates the bill because this bill is a direct existential threat to the survival of several wealthy corporations. It is to the mobile games industry what a smoking ban would be to the tobacco industry.

I'm 100% in favor of banning lootboxes and pay to win. But it's going to be a serious uphill slog against every obstacles and opposition a fairly wealthy industry can buy.

Likewise we can expect to see the big AAA studios getting in on the opposition as well. They're still getting most of their money via sales of games, but they're feeling a pinch. As others have noted, a typical AAA game today costs about $60 at launch, which is about what they cost 30 years ago. Game prices simply haven't gone up with inflation, and that means game companies are trying to make up the difference in other ways.

That's why EA, Steam, Activision/Blizzard, and all the others are introducing mobile gaming style pay to win and lootbox type mechanisms in their games. And they too won't be happy about the government trying to basically outlaw the new cashflow they were looking greedily at.
posted by sotonohito at 6:36 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


And TBH, I don't think either game would have been ruined if this mechanic had just been eliminated and there hadn't been any way of paying your monthly fee with in-game currency.

None of these games launched with this mechanic. EVE pioneered it several years into its existence (and was much closer, ideologically, to the Ultima Online "It's neat that our in-game currency has value!" model) and Sony and Blizzard adopted it much, much later after finally coming to the conclusion that it was cheaper to just set up an authorized system than to keep trying to control the third parties. And of those, only EVE has ever condoned it as a way to actually transfer real-world money between players - Sony's system, and WoW's, are real-world-money -> company only.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:33 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Oh yes, those famous games you purchased and then never paid the developer $9-$15 a month for the privilege of being able to continue to play the game. No one ever paid Activison/Blizzard $1.5k+ during the pre-micro-transaction decade you are referencing.

ErisLordFreedom's assertion in the bit I quoted was that server-based games were unprofitable prior to the rise of microtransactions and loot boxes. The fact that those games were successful long before the advent of pay-to-win mechanisms (though, granted, the informal real-money transaction economy has been around since the very earliest days of MMOs, the companies actually building and running those MMOs didn't see any direct benefit from it) cuts directly against that claim.

Obviously, and to your point, the subscription fees were not as lucrative as exploitative gacha-game mechanisms or the industry wouldn't have gone down direction but the claim that server-based persistent games were unprofitable without microtransactions is just plain wrong.
posted by multics at 7:33 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Yeah, as someone who made her living for the better part of a decade on the profits of non-microtransaction online games, that's just utter bullshit. UO came out in 1997 and was running at 80% profit (on a 12.99/mo sub) in 2007, and is still running now. (It now has some non-lootbox microtransactions, but they were nothing like a significant percentage of the profit back then, and the game hasn't changed all that much. Mostly it was convenience items or cosmetics.)
posted by restless_nomad at 7:37 AM on June 3 [4 favorites]


This law definitely isn't going anywhere, and gambling mechanics in games are going to get worse before they get better.

When a game introduces gambling, profits increase exponentially. Activision, EA, Tencent (through ownership of American companies), and Take Two all make the majority of their money through gambling-adjacent microtransactions - to the tune of tens of billions of dollars industry-wide. There is more money being spent on loot boxes than on all other transactions in the video game market.

The video game market is around a quarter to a third of the size of the petroleum industry in the US depending on the year. It is 15 - 20 times the size of the entire gun industry. I'm mentioning these numbers to put in perspective how much political power these industries have per dollar pumped into the economy.

No, nothing is going to happen in Washington. Not even a watered down version. This bill will be nuked so hard it won't come up again for a decade.
posted by FakeFreyja at 7:59 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Steve Bannon got his start by facilitating people wanting to spend real money for powerlevelling and gold wow gold cheap wow gold

Just correcting the record here a bit; Bannon didn't "get his start" with real money trade. He worked at IGE / Affinity Media from the mid 2000s to about 2012, some 20+ years after his career as an investment banker was established. He was on the board of IGE and became CEO of Affinity Media. Then he left to found Breitbart.

The more interesting potential scandal here is that IGE was founded by Brock Pierce, closely connected via Digital Entertainment Network to convicted pedophile Marc Collins-Rector. Pierce himself also is implicated in sexual abuse of minors. However, Pierce's overlap with Bannon at IGE is coincidental and no one journalist has asserted Bannon knew or was involved in any sort of child sexual abuse himself. Given the intense media focus on Bannon I have to think if there were any clear connection it would have come out by now.
posted by Nelson at 8:58 AM on June 3


« Older "I am best egg in the world. This certificate...   |   Worlds about which we know almost nothing Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments