Google cracks down on video game 'loot boxes' amid child gambling concerns

Google cracks down on video game 'loot boxes' amid child gambling concerns
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Google this week updated its rules on so-called loot boxes, a game feature that has been accused of encouraging gambling and addiction among children and could face regulations under a new bill on Capitol Hill. 

"Loot boxes" are a popular game feature that allows players to receive rewards at random for a fee. Countries around the world have been eyeing crackdowns on loot boxes, and Belgium last year declared them illegal under the country's gambling laws. 

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Google appears to be heeding the warnings, and this week added language requiring Play Store app developers to disclose the likelihood that players will receive rewards from loot boxes. 

"Apps offering mechanisms to receive randomized virtual items from a purchase (i.e. ‘loot boxes’) must clearly disclose the odds of receiving those items in advance of purchase," Google's payments rules read as of Thursday, according to tech blog Android Police.

The Apple App Store instituted a similar policy in 2017.

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle Trump judicial nominee says he withdrew over 'gross mischaracterizations' of record MORE (R-Mo.), a fierce tech critic who recently introduced legislation that would prohibit games geared toward children from implementing loot boxes entirely, applauded Google's move.  

"This is a step in the right direction, but Google should force video game companies to keep slot machines out of the hands of children altogether," Hawley said in a tweet.

Hawley introduced the bill last week alongside Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyNew push to regulate self-driving cars faces tough road Democratic White House hopefuls push to expand health care in US territories Democratic White House hopefuls push to expand health care in US territories MORE (D-Mass.), both of whom are vocal on children's privacy issues. 

The act would bar kids games from using "manipulative" game design to encourage children to spend money and potentially become addicted. It would bar "pay-to-win" features, which prompt users to pay real-world money to advance in the game, as well as loot boxes.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would be tasked with enforcing the ban, and state attorneys general would also be empowered to file lawsuits against companies who violated the rules.

The legislation has already drawn the ire of the video game industry, with the Entertainment Software Association pointing out that “numerous countries, including Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, determined that loot boxes do not 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 CEO of the video game industry trade group, said in a recent statement. "Parents already have the ability to limit or prohibit in-game purchases with easy to use parental controls.” 

China has also taken action against loot boxes and in 2017 implemented rules requiring game companies to disclose the odds that players will receive valuable items.