Are your kids gambling on video games? State senators look to study 'loot boxes'

OLYMPIA -- A new bill aims to find out if children are gambling on video games, spending real money on little or no virtual returns; and perhaps changing their brain chemistry in a way that will increase their chances of gambling addiction later in life.

On Wednesday, the Washington State Senate held a public hearing on SB 6266, a bill that would require the Washington State Gambling Commission to study loot boxes in online games or apps.

Loot boxes are in-game items that can be purchased with real money. They operate as random prize boxes, with the buyer not knowing what they're getting until the loot box is purchased.

Gamers get things like improved abilities, costumes and specialized weapons that help them advance in the game.  Some prizes are better than others.

Loot boxes came to national attention late last year, when the popular video game Star Wars Battlefront II came under intense online criticism for its use of loot boxes in the trial version. Critics said the game relied heavily on the boxes, encouraging people to use real money to level-up, instead of gaining experience through the game.

Washington State Gambling Commission legislative liaison Brian Considine told legislators that the commission has received dozens of complaints from gamers and their parents.

"We do receive a lot of complaints," Considine said. "Either from players who are angry they spent a lot of money, or they haven't gotten a lot of value."

Some believe loot boxes target young players. In an article with The Intercept, an Australia based video game addiction clinic said they had multiple reports of kids stealing their parents' credit cards to buy loot boxes.

Critics say the loot boxes are distributed in a flashy way to encourage purchasing, and can even change a young person's brain chemistry.

"I'm interested in the brain science behind this," State Sen. Bob Hasegawa said at Wednesday's hearing. "Whether (children's) brains are more susceptible to gambling."

Tom Foulkes, of the entertainment software association, said a study wasn't necessary, arguing the average gamer was 35 years old.

He likened loot boxes to other games and collectibles of random chance.

"It's like baseball cards," Foulkes said. "People are not guaranteed what they're going to get, but they're going to get something."

Other representatives from the gambling commission supported the bill, saying they haven't had a chance to study the impacts of online games. Two other states, Indiana and Hawaii, have introduced bills that would restrict loot boxes.

The United Kingdom and some other European countries, as well as China and Japan, all restrict or have rules regulating the in-game purchases.

It's a nuanced landscape, Chris Stearns with the state's gambling commission said. Some loot boxes may constitute gambling while others don't. A comprehensive study is needed to better understand the new technology, and see what affects it's having on our kids.

"The landscape is developing rapidly," Stearns said. "We need to investigate potential new kinds of gambling."