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FTC plans a 'public workshop' on loot boxes later this year

In February 2018, US senator Maggie Hassan called on the ESRB to take steps to reduce the prevalence of loot boxes in videogames, and warned that if it did not, the government step in. Later the same year, the Federal Trade Commission signaled its willingness to get involved in the matter. Now, according to Variety, the wheels have begun turning: A letter sent to Hassan by FTC chairman Joseph Simons said the commission is planning a "public workshop on loot boxes" later this year.   

Simons said in the letter that he shares Hassan's concerns about loot boxes, and while he can't comment on "nonpublic law enforcement efforts," he is able to provide insight into other possible avenues of action. 

"We are currently planning a public workshop on loot boxes for later this year as one non-law enforcement option. A workshop could provide a forum for stakeholders representing wide-ranging perspectives, including consumer advocacy organizations, parent groups, and industry members," Simons wrote. "It also could help elicit information to guide subsequent consumer outreach, which could include a consumer alert." 

Simons noted that the FTC has previously issued reports on the marketing of violent entertainment media to children, and said that as the videogame industry has evolved, "we have remained vigilant for potential consumer protection issues, and we have continued outreach efforts to self-regulatory bodies such as the Entertainment Software Rating Board." 

Pressure from government agencies in countries including Australia, Belgium, and the Netherlands have already led to significant changes to loot boxes, in some cases increased transparency, and in others their outright removal. But the debate persists: Regulatory bodies have so far been reluctant to define loot boxes as a form of gambling, and publishers remain committed to them.

The IGDA called for an industry-led effort to address loot box concerns late last year, warning that failure to do so risks government action that could "create significantly restrictive laws that could impact any random reward elements in games." We mulled over that possibly in late 2017, shortly after the Star Wars: Battlefront 2 beta lit the fuse on the current controversy. 

Hassan called the workshop "a step in the right direction," and encouraged the FTC to continue its efforts "to increase transparency and consumer protections around loot boxes." 

Andy covers the day-to-day happenings in the big, wide world of PC gaming—the stuff we call "news." In his off hours, he wishes he had time to play the 80-hour RPGs and immersive sims he used to love so much.