Senators Ask For Investigation Into Loot Boxes As Potential Form Of Gambling

Few could have predicted the international headlines that Star Wars Battlefront II spurred over its highly controversial microtransaction implementation. The latest chapter has now commenced, with three Washington State Senators submitting a bill this month that asks the state to determine if loot boxes constitute gambling. And if they do, the effects could be significant and potentially industry-changing.
Senate Bill 6266 in the Washington Legislature [PDF] was introduced on January 11 and referred to the Labor & Commerce committee. It is scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Labor & Commerce at 1:30 PM on January 31.
The bill asks for the Washington state gambling commission to conduct a study that looks into whether video games that use loot boxes that contain "mechanisms that provided randomized virtual items in online games or apps" should be considered gaming under Washington law. The bill also wants to examine if these mechanisms have any place in games whatsoever. Perhaps more importantly, the bill wants to put in motion an examination into if minors and young people," who may be more vulnerable to gambling addiction," should have access to games with loot boxes. Furthermore, the Senators are calling out game developers for the "lack of disclosure and transparency" about loot box odds.
The Democratic senators who submitted the bill, Kevin Ranker, Reuven Carlyle, and Karen Keiser, are asking for a relatively quick turnaround on the study. They are asking the Washington state gambling commission to have it submitted no later than December 1, 2018. At this time, the commission is asked to provide "written findings and provide recommendations regarding how to best regulate the practice of including loot boxes and similar types of mechanisms in online games and apps, including options for the adoption and implementation of a regulatory and enforcement system, restrictions on the sale of games containing these mechanisms, and any appropriate disclosures."
There are some very important lines in there, perhaps most notably that the Senators are looking for potential regulation on games with loot box mechanics. Significantly, the "regulatory and enforcement system," while vague in its terms now, could have major implications. If this bill becomes law, it sounds like such games would be considered gambling. That would mean that people under 18 (the legal gambling age in Washington; it is 21 in other states) would potentially be blocked from buying these games. Perhaps more notably, this bill, if it becomes law, could serve as a precedent that could potentially sweep to other states and parts of the world.
Importantly, however, it is very early days, and--statistically speaking--most bills never become law, on a state and federal level.
Speaking to Washington's News Tribune (via USGamer), Ranker did not hold back in his takedown of games with controversial loot box systems.
"If (parents) realized how predatory these games are then they wouldn't want them under their Christmas tree, they wouldn't want them going to their kids," he charged.
You can read the full text of Bill 6266 right here on the Washington legislature website. As mentioned, the public hearing related to this bill is scheduled for January 31. We'll report back when more details are made available.
Loot boxes in video games are not new; their existence pre-dates Battlefront II. However, that EA-published game brought the controversy to the forefront due in part to how loot boxes contained game-affecting items instead of those that are cosmetic in nature only as games like Overwatch offer. This led some to believe that the loot boxes, which you could buy with real money, amounted to a pay-to-win situation. This did not go over well with players, and EA removed all microtransactions from the game--but they may or may not come back later.
Washington state's bill is not the first from a state senator about loot boxes and microtransactions. A United States senator from Hawaii is also looking into the matter, saying recently that he wants the sale of some games with loot boxes banned for minors. Internationally, Belgium has also launched an investigation to try to determine if games with loot box mechanics represent gambling. New Zealand, meanwhile, has come forward to say loot boxes do not constitute gambling.
This is an ongoing matter that we expected won't reach any conclusion anytime soon, so keep checking back with us.