Bills target video games with rewards for a price

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald "Star Wars: Battlefront II" is available for purchase at GameStop Friday in Prince Kuhio Plaza.

It might be game over for certain video games in Hawaii after state lawmakers introduced legislation to limit the implementation of electronic gambling systems within the popular pastime.

A quartet of proposed bills introduced last month target exploitative monetization techniques in video games that some fear might psychologically condition players to become addicted to gambling.


The bills highlight a common mechanism referred to as “loot boxes,” wherein players can use real money to purchase an in-game “box” of items. The contents of the box are randomized, with some items being much rarer than others, and cannot be revealed until the box is purchased.

One pair of bills, House Bill 2686 and Senate Bill 3024, would prohibit the sale of any game featuring a system wherein players can purchase a randomized reward using real money to anyone younger than 21 years old.

The other two bills, House Bill 2727 and Senate Bill 3025, would require video game publishers to prominently label games containing such randomized purchase systems, as well as disclose the probability rates of receiving each loot box reward.

“I grew up playing games my whole life,” said state Rep. Chris Lee of Oahu, who spearheaded the bills. “I’ve watched firsthand the evolution of the industry from one that seeks to create new things to one that’s begun to exploit people, especially children, to maximize profit.”

The bills come after a contentious period in the video games industry, with several recent major game releases featuring the controversial loot box systems.

Some games, such as the popular 2016 multiplayer online shooter “Overwatch,” allow players to earn loot boxes through a relatively short period of standard gameplay — one box in “Overwatch” can be earned in approximately 40 minutes — and only offer cosmetic rewards such as new costumes for players.

Other games, however, make loot boxes much harder to obtain through conventional means and offer the chance to win competitive advantages, tempting players to spend money in order to gain an edge over their opponents.

In particular, the 2017 online game “Star Wars: Battlefront II” incurred significant online controversy for its extensive in-game transaction system, which not only offered gameplay advantages through loot boxes but also locked iconic and powerful “Star Wars” characters such as Darth Vader or Bossk behind a paywall of in-game currency.

While such characters could be unlocked by playing the game long enough — thus earning enough in-game currency to purchase the character — players could unlock them far more quickly by simply purchasing in-game currency with real-life currency, creating a system where players “pay to win.”

Because of the popularity of the “Star Wars” brand among children — “Battlefront II” and “Overwatch” are rated T for teen by the Electronic Software Rating Board — online commentators have accused Electronic Arts and other publishers of exploiting children with psychologically manipulative practices to encourage them to gamble real money on virtual goods.

“Whistleblowers have revealed that psychologists are employed to create these mechanisms,” Lee said.

Lee said he has worked with legislators from other states and countries to create a widespread response to predatory payment mechanisms. More than half of U.S. states are pursuing some form of loot box oversight legislation, he said.

“If enough of the market reacts, the industry would have to respond and change its practices,” Lee said.

In response to heavy criticism, Electronic Arts, the publisher of “Star Wars: Battlefront II,” removed all in-game transaction systems from the game prior to launch, with all rewards able to be earned through standard gameplay. However, last month, the publisher announced that some in-game transaction systems would return later this year, albeit in an as-yet unknown form.

GameStop employee Jacob Dennis said he did not see any demonstrable falloff in “Battlefront II” sales, despite the backlash against the game. Nor, he said, have many parents complained to GameStop employees about in-game purchasing systems.

“The younger kids are already playing things like ‘Roblox’ and ‘Minecraft,’ and they already have a bunch of microtransactions,” Dennis said. “I think parents probably just don’t know about it.”

Another GameStop employee, who requested to remain anonymous, expressed concern about how the proposed bills would cut into game sales, particularly when game retailers already refuse to sell games rated M for mature to anyone younger than 17.

“If you’re old enough to go to war, you should be able to play a video game where you don’t kill people in real life,” the employee said.

On the other hand, one gamer, Pahi Bauckham, said he occasionally finds himself spending additional money in the game “Call of Duty: WWII” simply for the sake of having extra content.

“It does bother me a lot,” Bauckham said. “And then you have kids using their parents’ consoles, and they’re already connected to their parents’ bank accounts.”

Whether consumed by children or adults, however, in-game purchases provide massive profits. Activision Blizzard, publisher of “Overwatch,” announced Friday the company made $4 billion from in-game transactions in 2017.


“It’s a $30 billion industry,” Lee said. “It’s bigger than Hollywood. It’s an industry that can reach into everyone’s pockets and phones and consoles and PCs, but there’s no authority to force them to disclose their practices.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.