US bill could push ‘Candy Crush’ maker and others to curb kids’ in-game buys


  • TECH
  • Friday, 24 May 2019

FAIRER SEX: Women make up two-thirds of Candy Crush players, according to the game's British developer King. — ©AFP/Relaxnews 2014

Videogame makers including Activision Blizzard Inc and Electronic Arts Inc might have to block young players from buying some features or else face bans under a bipartisan measure proposed by Republican Josh Hawley. 

Hawley, who is joined by Democratic Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal, introduced legislation to ban the purchase of mystery rewards within videogames aimed at players under age 18, a lucrative practice that some critics say constitutes gambling. 

Hawley said that the companies’ business model relies "on placing a casino in the hands of every child in America with the goal of getting them desperately hooked". The bill calls for enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general. While the measure is bipartisan, it could face steep hurdles in the current Congress in trying to impose bans and strict regulation on an industry that policy makers have left largely untouched. 

Still, videogame designers are facing a growing backlash against what are increasingly being viewed as unfair payment practices. Hawley’s bill would target the custom of getting players to spend money on mystery goods and services in the game through so-called microtransactions that generate billions of dollars for the videogame industry. The practice is especially common in games that are given away for free. 

The key features under fire are so-called loot boxes, which have appeared in popular games such as Epic Games Inc’s Fortnite, Electronic Arts’ Star Wars: Battlefront II and Activision’s Candy Crush. Loot boxes lure players with the promise of better weapons, faster cars or increased lives, but they don’t know what they will get until they pay for it. 

The mystery element has caused the practice to be compared to gambling, prompting pressure from regulators. Belgium has declared them illegal, while the FTC and regulators across Europe are looking at the issue. 

US$120bil revenue 

Goldman Sachs estimated in 2018 that in-game purchases could generate half of the global videogame industry’s US$120bil (RM503.10bil) revenue. 

In an earlier announcement, Hawley called out Candy Crush’s US$150 (RM629) "Luscious Bundle", which gives users advantages such as reducing difficulty and giving them more lives, as "notorious". Both Fortnite and the Star Wars abandoned loot boxes after the outcry. 

Hawley’s bill comes amid growing concern about the effect of social media, electronic devices and games on young people, including videogame addiction. The Missouri freshman has been one of the tech industry’s most vocal critics, often slamming Alphabet Inc’s Google on privacy. He previously cosponsored a bill with Markey to expand privacy laws for children and apply some existing protections to teens up to age 15. 

The bill would apply to games targeted to players under age 18 (as judged by content, ads and other factors), or to games that should know any of its users are minors. It would also ban other types of sales that have been derided as "pay-to-win", such as those that give players a leg-up over those that don’t make purchases. 

The industry has argued loot boxes don’t constitute gambling because they’re optional purchases that "are never required to complete the game". Some companies have begun labelling games that contain in-game purchases. – Bloomberg

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