Kotaku’s Jason Scheirer landed an interview with Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who earlier this month made it known that he intends to propose anti-loot-box legislation to Congress. While Hawley admits to not being a gamer himself — something that couldn’t be said of Hawaii State Senator Chris Lee, who proposed anti-loot-box legislation in his state in late 2017 — his “layman’s approach” has both good and bad aspects to it, in my opinion.
The “bad” is pretty obvious. As a non-gamer (and he doesn’t yet let his young sons play games), any legislation proposed by Hawley is likely to be overreaching and out-of-touch with how game companies conduct business and how gamers enjoy their products. The fact that he’s also targeting “pay-to-win” mechanics is especially questionable, since gamers themselves can’t agree on what constitutes pay-to-win. Would we expect Congress to be able to do so? And if it does, what will that definition entail?
Here’s the silver lining, though: As someone who’s not intimately connected to gaming, Hawley can look at the issue as someone who hasn’t “normalized” the behavior of loot boxes in their daily lives. He brings up an interesting point regarding the public’s general knowledge of loot boxes in video games — which, while they appeal to a wide range of ages, are often specifically targeted at children. He mentions that the practice “is not going to stand up to public scrutiny” and that “once the general public understands how these games are being manipulated … it’s going to result in public backlash, and it should.”
Those of us who write about and follow video game new have known about (and complained about) loot boxes for years. But we’re insiders who live off that sort of thing. Sure, a story about someone whose kid racked up a $10,000 bill occasionally makes mainstream news, but by and large, I think that the general public thinks of this sort of thing as an aberration. Which it is, true, but spending a hundred bucks or so a month on a “free-to-play” game happens much more often and isn’t as newsworthy. Once incidents like that gets out there in greater detail, I think it could have an impact on public opinion. Game companies’ old chestnut of “It’s not gambling, really!” likely won’t hold up to scrutiny, either in Congress or across the vast portion of America, not once “Casinos For Children” becomes the headline on the evening news.
Ideally, Hawley’s threat of action will scare companies into taking their own action, just as what happened with game ratings and the ESRB 25 years ago. Hawley said that Electronic Arts has “expressed their, shall we say, concern over this legislation” and he takes that as a sign of progress. One way or another, there’s a lot of money at stake and it’s going to be a battle.