U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is targeting the tech industry through a proposed ban on so-called “pay-to-win” and “loot box" apps, such as Candy Crush, aimed at children and offering an assortment of digital items that critics say can be costly for parents and foster addiction and gambling.
With the Protecting Children From Abusive Games Act, Hawley is going after the growing revenue stream worth more than $50 billion to video game makers and app developers. Some of the apps are offered for free but require users to pay for upgrades, bonus features and other rewards to gain an advantage over their competitors.
“When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn’t be allowed to monetize addiction,” Hawley said in a Wednesday news release. “And when kids play games designed for adults, they should be walled off from compulsive microtransactions. Game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences.”
“When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn’t be allowed to monetize addiction.”
The bill would task the Federal Trade Commission with enforcing the proposed rules, the Kansas City Star reported.
Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, applauded Hawley for introducing the legislation.
“It is beyond unfair for developers to rig their games to manipulate children into making purchases themselves or nagging their parents to do so," Golin said in a statement to the Star. "Games that require additional payments to advance take advantage of children’s natural inclination to master new skills and compete."
"It is beyond unfair for developers to rig their games to manipulate children into making purchases themselves or nagging their parents to do so."
Hawley cited the popular game Candy Crush, which allows players to purchase a $149.99 “Luscious Bundle” that includes virtual currency and 24 hours of unlimited lives. Purchases made within games have come under criticism because children often use their parents’ credit cards without their knowledge.
In recent years, parents have complained about being charged hundreds or thousands of dollars. In 2016, Amazon was found to have unfairly charged parents for purchases made by their children while using apps that were advertised as free, the Washington Post reported.
In his first few months in office, Hawley -- a 39-year-old former state attorney general who ousted Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill in last November's midterm elections -- has taken aim at the tech industry. Last week, he criticized social media companies for allegedly profiting off the addiction of their users.
“Social media and video games prey on user addiction, siphoning our kids’ attention from the real world and extracting profits from fostering compulsive habits,” Hawley's statement read. “No matter this business model’s advantages to the tech industry, one thing is clear: There is no excuse for exploiting children through such practices.”
Regulators in Belgium, Japan and China have cracked down on game transactions and loot boxes – which offer players rewards for spending money and are deemed gambling by some, the Post reported. Some video game makers have responded by removing their products from some markets.
A video game lobby group -- the Entertainment Software Association – argued that countries like Ireland and Germany 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,” Stanley Pierre-Louis, the group’s acting president, told the Post in a statement.