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US Senator proposes legislation to ban loot boxes, pay-to-win mechanics, and other "manipulative design"

"Developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences."

US Senator Josh Hawley has proposed legislation that would prohibit pay-to-win mechanics, loot boxes, and other "manipulative design" in games targeted toward children.

"In recent years, the video game industry has become increasingly reliant on monetization models that promote compulsive 'microtransaction' purchases by consumers," reads a statement announcing the legislation on Hawley's website.

"When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn't be allowed to monetize addiction," Hawley wrote, "And when kids play games designed for adults, they should be walled off from compulsive microtransactions."

Hawley, the Republican US Senator for Missouri, also argued that "game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences."

Hawley is calling his new legislation The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act, and it's intended to "apply new consumer protections" to games targeted to players under the age of 18, as determined by "subject matter, visual content, and other indicators similar to those used to determine applicability of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act".

It would also affect games designed for wider audiences, whose developers "knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions".

Hawley's summary of the act specifically cites loot boxes and pay-to-win mechanics as the kinds of "manipulative design" that the legislation would seek to prohibit, with Hawley using Candy Crush's "Luscious Bundle" - which includes 1000 units of in-game currency, boosters to temporarily lower difficulty, and 24 hours of unlimited lives at a cost of a $149.99 USD - as an example of "exploitative" games industry practices.

"Social media and video games prey on user addiction, siphoning our kids' attention from the real world and extracting profits from fostering compulsive habits," said Hawley, "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".

Responding to Hawley's announcement, the Entertainment Software Association, which represents games publishers in the US, said that "numerous countries, including Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, determined that loot boxes do not constitute gambling." However, it neglected to mention those countries, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, that had decided otherwise.

"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," the ESA's statement continued, "Parents already have the ability to limit or prohibit in-game purchases with easy to use parental controls."