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New US bill would ban loot boxes in games for people under 18

Moving forward as promised, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri formally introduced a bill on Thursday that would halt sales of gaming loot boxes to people under 18.

An 'Overwatch' loot box.

An 'Overwatch' loot box.


Dubbed the "Protecting Children From Abusive Games Act," the bill would also cover "pay-to-win" schemes in which players can buy an unfair advantage. Loot boxes are randomized bundles of content — such as clothing, weapons, or in-game currency — and have been accused of encouraging gambling, since adults and children alike may have to buy several to get what they actually want.

The items can be found in popular games like "Fortnite," "Overwatch," and "PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds," though those three typically limit purchases to cosmetic objects like clothing or skins. The worst offenders are more often mobile games targeted at a casual audience — Hawley's office previously singled out "Candy Crush," a "free" match-3 puzzler in which people can buy extra moves, lives, and other progress boosters. One in-game bundle purportedly costs as much as $149.99, more than twice the upfront price for big-budget PC and console games like "Red Dead Redemption II."

Co-sponsors on the bill include Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). Hawley is a Republican.

The legislation is the third today backed by Markey —the politician is also throwing his weight behind an anti-robocalling bill and requiring a warrant for electronics searches at the border.

Gamers, politicians, and parents alike have increasingly fought back against pervasive microtransactions. One company, EA, was forced to retool "Star Wars: Battlefront II" when people learned that some paid boxes could affect multiplayer balance, an example of "pay-to-win."

That game in fact became a tipping point, snowballing into actions by regulators in China, Belgium, and Japan, as well as state-level proposals in the U.S., though none of the latter have reached lawbooks. The Federal Trade Commission has promised to look into loot boxes but has not launched a formal investigation.

A crackdown could hit not just developers but platform-holders like Apple, which claims a 30 percent cut from all App Store transactions except subscriptions active for more than a year.

In earlier days of the App Store, Apple made headlines because of children who downloaded "free-to-play" games only to rack up hundreds of dollars on their parents' credit cards. The company was slow to react, though it did eventually institute better labels and controls. It wasn't until this April that people were required to hit "Confirm Subscription" before signing up for monthly or annual payments.