State Rep to Video Game Industry: Regulate Loot Boxes Before We Are Forced to Legislate

State Rep says he may legislate if industry doesn't regulate

The Attorney General of Hawaii is weighing the legal issues potentially surrounding Electronic Arts’ Star Wars Battlefront II and its use of what politicians there describe as predatory practices and the dangers of encouraging children to gamble. At least one of the two state lawmakers who raised the issue a week ago is also considering introducing a bill that could ban the sale of the game in Hawaii to minors.

“The fear when you introduce government legislation into private enterprise is that we are going to overreach,” Hawaii State Rep. Sean Quinlan tells Glixel in a phone interview. “That is my fear. Ultimately, it’s best for the industry to self-police.”

In Quinlan’s view, a better outcome would be for the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to address the use of loot boxes and microtransactions in video games with higher ratings and warning labels.

“The ideal solution would be for the game industry to stop having gambling or gambling-like mechanics in games that are marketed to kids,” he says. He doesn’t put a lot of faith in publisher Electronic Arts doing something like that on its own.

“I know they have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, but I think they have a responsibility to customers too,” he says. “So the ESRB could say that if a game has loot crates, it gets a 21-plus rating. I wouldn’t want it to be a federal law. I think that could be a very slippery slope.”

While Star Wars Battlefront II, which sells as a full-priced retail game, was set to have a microtransaction system that asked players to invest extra time or money to unlock major playable heroes, that system was temporarily pulled by EA prior to the game's launch. It remains unclear what form those transactions will take when they return to the game. The inclusion of those loot boxes in the game led to universal outcry among gamers and turned the topic into one of the most discussed on website Reddit.

That’s where Quinlan, who says he grew up gaming and spends his free time playing video games, first spotted the issue.

“Reddit. It’s the front page of the Internet right?” Quinlan says when I ask him where he first heard about the issues in the game. “I was on Reddit one morning, and every single post on the front page was about Battlefront. I realized just how bad it has gotten. We’ve been on this path for 15 years with day-one DLC, subscription passes, pay-to-win. We as consumers kept accepting that, kept buying those games. Now we’re at a place where we need to consider, do we need to legislate? Does the ESRB have to consider a new rating that could deal with gambling and addictive mechanics?”

Quinlan said that fellow state legislator Chris Lee, who also has long played video games, also came across the issue on Reddit and contacted Quinlan to discuss what they should and could do.

“Full credit to Representative Chris Lee,” he says. “It didn’t register that we could make a difference.”

The two discussed their plan of attack and then released a video-taped press conference a bit more than a week ago to discuss their concerns about the game and how it might impact children. In particular, the concern that the game’s loot boxes were essentially a form of dressed up gambling.

Last week, the Entertainment Software Association told Glixel that loot boxes are not a form of gambling.

“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. 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."

While Quinlan acknowledged today that the interactions in the game might not constitute traditional gambling, but said so with a caveat.

“I think the mechanism is so close to gambling, when we talk about psychology and the way addiction and reward works, I think whether or not it means the strict definition of gambling, it’s close enough and the impact is close enough,” he says.

He also addressed the reasoning behind going after this particular game now, when many games before Battlefront 2 have uses similar systems.

“This is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he says. “EA and Disney are two of the largest companies not just in America, but the world and Star Wars is such a beloved property. That it is being used for evil is especially upsetting.”

Quinlan and Lee passed information on about the game to Hawaii State Attorney General Doug Chin for an official opinion about the legal issues surrounding the game’s use of microtransactions and loot boxes, Quinlan says. For now, the two are waiting to hear his opinion.

And while EA has paused the use of that mechanic in this game, Quinlan says he isn’t convinced the company won’t return to the practice.

“For this particular game, I think EA is between a rock and a hard place, but we as consumers have a short memory,” he says. “I’m sure they will try something like this very soon. As someone who has watched EA develop over the years and consume some of my favorite studios and destroy so many franchises, I don’t think this is going away. And I’m definitely going to stick to this. It’s an important issue for me.”

Electronic Arts has remained mostly silent since releasing a statement saying it was putting the use of loot boxes in the game on hold. We’ve emailed the company for comment and will update this story when they respond. We’ve also reached out to the ESRB and ESA for comment.