Hawaii Rep. Chris Lee came to the attention of gamers a couple of weeks ago when he posted a video on YouTube calling out loot boxes, and Star Wars Battlefront 2 in particular, a game he described as "a Star Wars-themed online casino." In a new video that he put up today, Lee laid out a more detailed plan for curtailing "predatory gaming practices," and explained how people opposed to loot box mechanics can help make it happen.
The video lays out the basics of what Lee has in mind, which includes prohibiting the sale of videogames containing "gambling mechanisms" to anyone under the age of 21. That restriction would cover any situation in which players are purchasing a "percentage chance" to get an in-game item, rather than the item itself, and would apply not just to games sold at retail but also those available via digital distribution channels like Steam and GOG—a relevant point because ESRB ratings are not mandatory for digital storefronts.
Lee also expresses concern about game publishers who adjust the odds of various items dropping in loot boxes in order to take advantage of people who really want them. He acknowledges that his information is third-hand and unverified (and I've only ever heard of the opposite happening, in the form of "pity timers" that increase the odds of a good drop the longer a person goes without one), but nonetheless does a pretty good job of making it sound like an all-but-established fact.
"Once the algorithm identifies a player who's likely to keep spending money to buy that one 'unicorn thing' that they're after ... then they lower the odds and then you keep spending more," he says in the video. "It's absolutely unethical and unfair."
As a result, he's also seeking an "accountability piece" of legislation to ensure that behind-the-scenes drop-rate shenanigans doesn't happen, which would presumably require publishers to reveal loot box drop rates odds—something similar to the step taken late last year by China.
The YouTube listing calls on supporters to write their elected officials and "ask them to consider taking action to protect local families and particularly underage youth from predatory gaming practices." It also includes a link to a "Predatory Gaming Letter" template, for people not comfortable crafting their own, which unsurprisingly portrays the issue in a rather alarming light.
"Loot box game mechanisms are often styled to literally resemble slot machines, and are made available to anyone in games on their mobile phones, consoles such as the X-Box, Playstation, and on home computers. This may explain why the American Psychological Association has identified 'Internet Gaming Disorder' as an emerging diagnosis which warrants further study in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)," the letter states.
"Unlike carnival games, collecting cards, or similar purchases of chance, videogames require active, lengthy participation during which consumers are exposed to psychological manipulation techniques which can result in real addiction and harm. The scale and ease of access to these games make addressing these concerns critical. Casinos have long been criticized for building a business model around the exploitation of psychological vulnerabilities in many people. These business models are now being replicated by the online gaming industry to do the same, right on the phones and in the homes of countless families around the country."
In the wake of the recent loot box blowup there has been some call for the game industry to regulate itself in order to avoid government involvement. But Lee's template seems to reject that proposition outright.
"Game developers in the gaming industry are represented by their trade group, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). In 1994 the ESA created the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to provide videogame ratings for consumers," the letter says. "Unsurprisingly, the ESA and ESRB have taken a position defending the lucrative revenue streams generated by these predatory mechanisms, claiming that predatory loot boxes do not fall under the current definition of gambling."
Obviously there's a tremendous gap between a YouTube video and actual legislative action, but Lee and his team certainly appear to be giving the matter a serious push. Depending how you feel about government intervention in media, and your hopes for differentiating between "good" and "bad" loot boxes, that's either encouraging news, or it really is not.