US politicians have written letters to the most prominent gaming companies asking them to better protect young people, most notably children, from online risks and aggressive in-game monetization practices by extending the new United Kingdom design rules to children in the United States. The new regulation could ban predatory games from selling in-game loot boxes to minors, which could imply minor game redesigns.
According to IGN, US Congress members wrote letters to major gaming companies, imploring executives to explain what changes their companies are making based upon the new UK legislation and what effect those changes might have on their products in the US. It’s worth noting that the law in question doesn’t extend to children in the US, but executives from Blizzard, Microsoft, Niantic, Epic Games, and Take-Two Interactive, were amongst several US-based companies who have received the letters, imploring them to uphold similar values for children’s safety online.
The new UK law is set to come into effect in the UK on September 2, applying to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram and gaming companies that rely on microtransactions (abbreviated MTX) to generate revenue from otherwise free-to-play games. Its primary purpose is to keep the children’s data safe online and prohibit companies from using nudge tactics, such as loot boxes or other forms of aggressive monetization in predatory games, as a method for selling desirable in-game items to children in the UK. In addition, the US lawmakers called on the aforementioned companies to voluntarily apply the same protocols to American children.
The prevalence of microtransactions in predatory games is often encouraged through manipulative tactics aimed at children, which leads to high credit card bills for parents. Loot boxes are a particularly questionable form of microtransaction – while entirely legal, they offer the acquisition of a random assortment of items, making them akin to gambling. The main concept behind loot boxes is that, despite gaining more items for a given price, the items that could significantly impact the gameplay are often rare, so players, in this case children, end up purchasing them multiple times. It’s noteworthy that some gaming companies offer high-end in-game items only through loot boxes, with the item’s drop percentage “written in the fine print.”
The extent of aggressive monetization through predatory games is incredible. Some companies “misuse” their online matching systems, often pairing players against those with notably higher match ratings, to create loss aversion. Such methodology prompts players who continuously lose repeatedly to spend money for items that will help them achieve an elusive victory. Besides ongoing controversies and legal charges against the company, Activision Blizzard is constantly criticized by its player base for MTX practices. The same applies to the recently hacked Electronic Arts, who went as far as to call loot boxes “surprise mechanics.”
Besides questioning the legality of predatory games, MTXs, especially loot boxes, many also question the morality and ethics of selling microtransactions to children, given that they may facilitate gambling behaviors. But, as history has tried to teach us, there’s very little ethics and morality when it comes to big money – and since 2011, the revenues earned through microtransaction have overtaken the revenue from premium games that make their money through traditional means.