After announcing his plans to introduce new legislation banning what he considered “manipulative video game features aimed at children” earlier this month, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) formally filed the Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act (PCAGA) on May 23, 2019, and made the text of the bill publicly available online, along with an FAQ.
It doesn’t have a formal Senate bill name, as it has yet to be read on the Senate floor, but it’s already gained support from Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). Hawley has previously worked with Markey on the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to increase data privacy protections for minors. After officially introducing the PCAGA bill last week, Hawley tweeted: “It’s pretty simple. Video game companies shouldn’t put casinos targeted at kids in their games. Proud of this bipartisan effort”.
Through the PCAGA, Hawley targets games that are aimed at minors and feature loot boxes and pay-to-win mechanics. He views these features as harmful to children—a way for game companies to “monetize” the addiction minors already experience by playing video games, he claims.
Though the bill clarifies Hawley’s position, it’s still broad in some areas. It defines loot boxes as additional transactions that may be randomized, repeated to unlock better loot boxes, and enhance the overall quality of the game. Meanwhile, the pay-to-win definition can apply to any games featuring additional transactions that may help the player progress through the narrative, achieve higher scores, or have a competitive advantage over other players.
Rather than use the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) system of defining what games should be sold to minors, the bill sets out to define the differences itself. The bill divides games into two main categories: minor-oriented games and games for general audiences. Minor-oriented games are determined by the age of their target audience and broad factors, such as “the use of animated characters or activities that appeal to individuals under the age of 18” and “celebrities who appeal to individuals under the age of 18”, in addition to a long list of other factors. If game developers and/or distributors “have constructive knowledge that some users are under the age of 18”, this bill classifies their game as intended for general audiences.
The bill states that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will enforce these rules, if passed. Companies that violate the rules would be financially penalized. Additionally, the bill calls upon the FTC to submit a report to the Senate on the psychological effects of pay-to-win mechanics and loot boxes on users and if such features “induce compulsive purchasing behavior by minors.”
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) has already responded to the bill with its concerns, as CEO Stanley Pierre-Louis called the bill “flawed and riddled with inaccuracies.” He claims the impact is “far-reaching” and may negatively affect “the more than 220,000 Americans employed by the video game industry.” He believes that control of any in-game purchases made by minors should be left up to parents, rather than the federal government.
This bill still has a long way to go to become law, and could also be edited along the way, if it survives the Senate. Hawley’s efforts come in the wake of recent instances of game companies facing increased pressure to regulate loot boxes and pay-to-win mechanics, such as a similar bill proposed in Hawaii earlier this year and the Belgian government finding certain video games in violation with their gambling laws.