Earlier this week, Republican senator Josh Hawley announced a bill that would regulate the use of loot boxes and microtransactions in “games played by minors.” But aren’t Republicans typically against any type of regulation on the free market? On this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen, we talk about the idea of politicians seeking out the gamer vote, as well as the rest of the news from this week, including the Riot Games walkout and Sonic the Hedgehog’s silver screen redesign.
First, we talk about Joshua Rivera’s article about the mental health impact on developers who design ultra-violent games, and then talk about the games we’re playing: I beat Danganronpa, Jason’s playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, and Kirk’s played every other game. At 35:05, we discuss the news of the week, and at 1:01:28, we get into off-topic discussion of TV, books, movies, and Kirk’s Sex Education-inspired music pick of the week.
Get the MP3 here, or read an excerpt below.
Jason: U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, who is a Republican senator out of Missouri, announced that he is going to be introducing a bill called “The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act” that is designed to ban pay-to-win microtransactions and loot boxes in “games played by minors,” which will include games designed for kids and games whose developers knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions. This is wild stuff.
A little bit of context here. Since 2017, which was the year of loot boxes—and since the Middle-Earth: Shadow of War debacle and then the Star Wars: Battlefront II debacle, which was really what set everything off—some politicians have tried to get involved in loot boxes and talking about them. There was a state senator in Hawaii who tried to introduce legislation banning loot boxes; it didn’t go anywhere. Then U.S. senator Maggie Hassan, who is a Democrat in New Hampshire, wrote a letter to the FTC saying: Investigate loot boxes. The FTC said they would.
Now, this is the first time we’re getting real federal legislation introduced to the Senate that could potentially have some regulation effects. Who knows if people in the Senate will actually care about it, if it’ll actually pass a vote—there’s lots of things that remain to be seen. But the fact that the video game industry could not control itself and let this greed get so out of hand that the Senate is now potentially going to regulate it is really, really wild ...
To people like us, who play a lot of games and follow a lot of gaming news, it seems like loot boxes have gone on the downswing, that they’ve been reduced a lot. Like the new Star Wars game was announced with no microtransactions, no loot boxes. But if you look at the financials behind companies like EA, a large chunk of their revenue is coming through games like FIFA, which is all based on loot boxes and pay-to-win microtransactions. For Take-Two, it’s NBA 2K—again, all loot boxes, microtransactions. You look at Activision, they have Candy Crush. They have Overwatch, which has plenty of loot boxes, even if they’re cosmetic. So this will have a very huge impact on these companies, if it were to be passed.
The ESA, which is the video game industry lobbyist group—the Entertainment Software Association—
Kirk: Let me guess. They’re not fans of this legislation.
Jason: They are not fans. They said, “Numerous countries determined that loot boxes don’t constitute gambling. We look forward to sharing with the senator the tools and information the industry already provides that keeps the control of in-game spending in parents’ hands. Parents already have the ability to limit or prohibit in-game purchases.” Kirk, what do you make of all this?
Kirk: I don’t know. He’s introduced legislation. A lot of people introduce legislation that has no chance of passing. This is, I think, a very far cry from becoming a law, but it does escalate the conversation.
Jason: I don’t think Far Cry has loot boxes.
Kirk: You know what, you can buy stuff in the new one.
Maddy: It has other ways of frustrating you besides that.
Kirk: I don’t really know what to make of the bill. Sometimes it tickles my “this person is just trying to jump into an unclaimed spotlight” thing, partly the bipartisan nature of it. It’s interesting that this is not yet a partisan issue. Josh Hawley is the guy who beat McCaskill just recently. He’s the youngest senator in the Senate (Jason: He’s 39). He is anti-abortion, liked by the NRA, he signed onto the lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. So he’s the kind of guy who maybe progressive people who listen to Kotaku Splitscreen would not like. And yet he’s also out there advocating for this...
I think a lot of people are feeling good about the legislation that he put forward—or at least, people who are concerned about this aren’t necessarily viewing it [as a partisan issue]. Or maybe they are, but there are Democrats and Republicans.
Maddy: It surprised me that he was a Republican, too, because Josh wrote a story for us recently about how the CEO of Take-Two can get some kickbacks from microtransactions. It’s a very convoluted setup as to how CEOs can get that kickback, but it is possible, so there’s some motivation to include microtransactions and loot boxes and similar types of things in a game for people that are at a very high level, at least at that particular company. So if you look at it from that vantage point, typically—not always, because politics are silly—but typically, Republicans are on the side of capitalism and the free market.
Jason: Anti-regulation, yeah.
Maddy: They’re against regulations like this. So it definitely surprised me to be seeing a Republican proposing a bill like this, but he is proposing it under the auspices of “protecting children,” which is always a very popular Republican buzz phrase.
Jason: A couple things on that note. One is that Josh Hawley is this guy who has positioning himself as anti-tech companies. He has come out a lot against Facebook and Google. He actually was probing them in a hearing the other week, and he’s been hammering on the whole anti-conservative bias from Facebook and Twitter a lot, which has been a big right-wing buzzword. Conservative folks think they’re being censored by these companies.
The other interesting thing to think about here is how many gamers are reactionary and right-wing, and associated with the alt-right —
Maddy: I don’t actually know how many of them are. We really don’t know the answer to that question. I feel like that’s the stereotype.
Jason: Sure, but if you think about how Kotaku In Action has a hundred thousand subscribers, and think about the alt-right’s intersection with gaming. If you think about that group, and how they are almost certainly all against loot boxes, this is a very blatant appeal to that crowd.
Maddy: Right. Gamer rights, consumer rights.
Jason: Right, gamers rise up. It also is a very easy way to get younger, impressionable folks to say, “Hey look, this Republican senator, he’s on our side. Why am I not a Republican? The Democrats aren’t doing anything about this.” So I think there’s a lot of appeal for him in his office to do something like this.
Kirk: Sure. Especially a 39-year-old first-term Senator who’s doubtless thinking about possible future things that he might do, and appealing to younger voters.
Jason: Oh, yeah. Super ambitious dude.
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