The standard GOP talking points on video games, for my whole entire life at least, has been that they are the devil’s work which leads to the moral decline of society. Latterly, some Republicans have adopted the idea that video games, not guns, are responsible for mass shootings. And then there are the Republicans who want to use video games as recruitment tools for the Army. Republican politicians generally have no idea why video games are even a thing.
It’s a strange disconnect, because most of the actual problems for people who play video games can be directly tied to the white male self-identified Republicans who play them. Nobody is quicker to “tea-bag” you after killing you than a Republican. Nobody is quicker to harass women who play, either in-game or on the forums, than a Republican whose account is draped in various MAGA haberdashery. And nobody, nobody, is quicker to claim you are being an oversensitive snowflake over his harassing or violent speech than the same Republican asshats who will go out and vote for politicians who get “triggered” and sensitive every time somebody posts a video of driving over a cop in Grand Theft Auto.
Democratic politicians aren’t much better. But at least gamer “ImStillWithHer2020” is unlikely to paint her armor as a Confederate Flag.
But yesterday, real-life Republican Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced a bill that addresses a scourge of both liberal and conservative gamers alike: Loot boxes.
Loot boxes are a form of treasure in video games that contain a randomized reward. They’re like a scratch-off lottery ticket: sometimes you will get something extremely useful, but most of the you’ll get crap. Also like a lotto ticket, you usually have to pay for them. It’s a small fee, a microtranscation, and just like a lotto ticket, you’re not supposed to feel like a $1 or $5 purchase is very much for the potential reward, even though your chances of “winning” something worth the purchase price are quite small.
I’m not idly making the lotto comparisons. I think loot boxes are a lot like gambling. For instance, the only time I make microtransactions in games is for “colors.” (I want my characters or spaceship or whatever to be in orange and blue because I’m a Mets fan and… I don’t want to talk about this anymore.) When a game allows me to buy the colors outright, it’s annoying but fair. But some games put those kinds of “cosmetics” in the loot boxes. That means I have to keep buying the loot boxes — whose rewards are random, remember — until I luckily end up with my chosen palette.
It’s even worse when the game wants you to buy loot boxes to progress in the game. Then you really feel like a guy with a scratch off ticket trying to win “a retirement” on your card. Gamers call this “pay to win” — it’s when a key piece of equipment or skill you really need to progress in the game or compete online is gated behind a loot box. Sure, the game might give you some kind of way to attain the upgrade without spending real money, but it’s usually not fun and really just designed to make you want to pay your way out of the boring bits. Most people will just stop playing the game at that point, but the people who can’t will spend money. Even here, it works a lot like a gambling addiction. South Park has, like, the best explanation on this, actually.
Unfortunately, countries literally all over the damn globe do not agree with me. They do not think loot boxes are akin to gambling, and thus loot boxes in video games are not regulated like gambling. I honestly believe this is because the old ass people who end up on courts have never known the DESPERATE need to unlock Iron Man on your tablet so your kid stops crying in the airport, but these people never call on me to testify.
Which brings us back to Hawley’s proposal. If loot boxes and microtransactions aren’t going to be regulated under existing gambling law, Hawley just wants to write a new law. He’s calling it The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act. From ArsTechnica:
As outlined, the bill would mirror the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in applying to games “targeted at those under the age of 18” and “games with wider audiences whose developers knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions.” Under the bill, such games would not be allowed to have loot boxes, defined here as “microtransactions offering randomized or partially randomized rewards to players.”
The bill summary also takes aim at so-called “pay-to-win” mechanics that “manipulate a game’s progression system… to induce players to spend money…” or which alter the “competitive balance between players of multiplayer games.” The Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general would be able to enforce the law.
As a Republican Senator, Hawley has already debased himself in service of Donald Trump, helping to shield the president and his men from legal or ethical responsibility. Hilariously, Hawley has already cast votes and will continue to cast votes for judges and justices who might raise Constitutional or regulatory objections to exactly this law.
But for now, in this extremely limited sense, what Hawley is on to here is good. The video game industry is taking advantage of children and taking advantage of people with addiction issues, AND making games that are boring on purpose so that people buy their way to the fun bits. It shouldn’t be legal now, and if it is, then we should write a law to make it illegal.
For the first time maybe ever, I think a Republican has figured out something that is actually wrong with video games.
Senator Hawley announces bill banning loot boxes, pay-to-win mechanics [ArsTechnica]
Elie Mystal is the Executive Editor of Above the Law and a contributor at The Nation. He can be reached @ElieNYC on Twitter, or at email@example.com. He will resist.
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