Hawaiian state representative Chris Lee is a gamer who’s been upset about loot boxes for a long time.
“I’ve been quietly following this for years,” he told me over the phone. “I’ve seen an evolution from what has been a traditional business model of buying a video game and playing it, to a business model built upon microtransactions…which—coupled with loot box mechanics— essentially create a gambling mechanism which is explicitly targeted at youth and young adults. That crosses a line.”
Lee caught the internet’s attention last week when he held a press conference to address the loot box controversy surrounding Star Wars Battlefront II. “This game is a Star Wars-themed online casino designed to lure kids into spending money,” he said then. “It’s a trap.”
Publisher Electronic Arts' flagship Star Wars video game caused controversy when it shipped with a progression system that encouraged players to buy loot boxes—randomized packages of in-game items. Players can pay to receive in-game rewards that in some instances can give them an edge over the competition in a multiplayer match, they just don't know exactly what in-game rewards they'll get.
Gamers cried foul and an attempt by an EA to allay fan fears led to the most downvoted comment thread in Reddit history. The online shitstorm got so bad that EA pulled the loot boxes out of the game entirely but it was too late. The game wasn’t very good and the damage was already done. Now some politicians—such as Lee—are talking about regulating the microtransactions and loot boxes that upset legions of gamers and Star Wars fans.
For Lee, video games selling loot boxes is a clear case of marketing gambling to children. “These mechanics are absolutely designed to exploit human psychology in the same way casino gambling does,” he told me. “Kids don’t have the maturity to know where to draw the line. It raises huge issues of what is ethically appropriate.”
Lee also sees this as part of a bigger discussion regarding in-app purchases. “There’s an unbelievable numbers of stories here in Hawaii about families who’ve learned their kids have run up significant amounts of spending on microtransactions or had stolen their parents credit card because they find themselves addicted to this kind of gaming,” he said “That’s a growing a problem.”
Amazon, Apple, and Google have faced consumer concern in the past few years regarding apps and games that allow kids to easily run up huge bills with in-app purchases. Kanye West was ranting about the problem on Twitter in 2015, as did Jack Black on The Tonight Show.
“The most surprising thing is talking to teachers,” Lee said. “Most of them had stories about kids in their class with problems. It’s much more widespread than people imagine. The fact that EA itself had over $1 billion in profits off of microtransactions shows that this is clearly something that is industry wide and touches every community in the country.”
Lee told me he’s working on legislation for the state of Hawaii that would restrict the sale of games with loot boxes to minors, but he wants to protect adults as well. “There’s cause to have a discussion about whether these mechanics are appropriate for anyone at any age,” he said. “That’s something we’re long past due to have a discussion about in this country. Were it solely up to me, encouraging gambling through online gaming in this manner—which lacks transparency and accountability—would come to an end.”
For now, Lee is happy to keep Star Wars Battlefront II out of the hands of children and he’s looking at partners in the continental United States to help. He’s speaking with state legislators in California, Minnesota, and other states about similar legislation.
He’s even invited the game’s industry to participate, but no one returned his call. We reached out to EA and it directed us to the Entertainment Software Administration—a lobbying group that works on behalf of the games industry.
“Loot boxes are a voluntary feature in certain video games that provide players with another way to obtain virtual items that can be used to enhance their in-game experiences,” the ESA told me via email. “They are not gambling. Depending on the game design, some loot boxes are earned and others can be purchased. In some games, they have elements that help a player progress through the video game. In others, they are optional features and are not required to progress or succeed in the game. In both cases, the gamer makes the decision.”
Lee told me that he’s fine working on legislation without the help of the games industry. He sees families as the victims and he’s happy to work with them. “We’ve been working with a lot of families who’ve felt like their victims of these sorts of gaming mechanisms,” he said. “I think it would certainly give them a 'sense of pride and accomplishment' to now work on ensuring that this practice comes to an end, their kids are protected, and we can ensure these kinds of predatory practices are prevented.”