One of “Star Wars” most iconic scenes takes place in the cantina of Mos Eisley, the epicenter of “scum and villainy” on the desert planet of Tatooine. The cantina is a hotspot for drinking, gambling, roughhousing, and also finding yourself a reliable pilot with a Wookie sidekick to smuggle you off-world. “Star Wars” isn’t really in a galaxy far far away, it’s always with us and finding its way into our daily lives.
Most recently, State Rep. Chris Lee, D-Hawaii, said he wants to stop the cantina from entering your living room in the form of videos games with subversive features that supposedly promote online gambling addiction. Lee held a press conference on Tuesday announcing that he is looking into legislation for 2018 that would open up new regulatory role for the government in the video game industry. This comes on the heels of EA Games' highly-anticipated and yet controversial game, "Star Wars Battlefront 2." The game uses a common feature to generate year-round revenue called “loot crates”.
Loot crates are an in-game item that offer players randomized bundles of power-ups, abilities, and other special items to outperform the competition. In essence, they are randomized treasure chests — think of the yellow question mark cubes in Mario, but you can buy unlimited numbers of them with hard cash. This model was popularized by the game Overwatch (2016) and has become something of an industry standard since. Battlefront 2 went all in on the loot crate model with the reasoning that EA could then fund ongoing maintenance of the game long after its release.
Videos games are not produced and sold in their finished states like in the old days. Today they are usually rolled out as living games that will be updated weekly and responsive to player feedback. When EA Games took to Reddit to explain their approach to Star Wars Battlefront 2, it ended up becoming the most downvoted post in the history of Reddit. Almost immediately, within days of release, EA backed down and pulled loot crates out of Battlefront 2 amidst the blowback and unease on Wall Street about the game's prospects.
The consumers, myself included, spoke out loudly against loot crates moving into Star Wars. To their credit, EA Games begrudgingly listened.
So that’s the end of it, right? Nope. Enter Lee.
Lee has said his future legislation will “prohibit access, or prohibit the sale of these games, to folks who are underage, in order to protect families, as well as prohibiting different kinds of mechanisms in those games." He went on to label the practice of selling these items in-game as “predatory,” likening it to "a Star Wars-themed online casino designed to lure kids into spending money.” Lee even connected the new Star Wars game to 1980s cigarette mascot Joe Camel.
This isn’t happening out of the blue. This week, Belgium's Gaming Commission officially declared loot crates are a remixed version of gambling. Last month, the debate was alive in the UK, and Belgium intends to bring this issue to the EU. There seems to be a certain hand-wringing here over what the definition of gambling is in relation to transactions inside video games. Some games use the randomized crate approach, while in others you enter an online store and see exactly what item you’re paying for with your real money. Players can buy loot crates with credits earned by playing the game, but the option of having the paid mechanism in Battlefront 2 is what sets off the ire of both gamers and now lawmakers. Gamers deride it as a pay-to-win scheme, and lawmakers like Lee call it a “trap” that lures kids into addiction.
Do we really need legislators to get involved in video gaming? Are kids truly in danger of becoming seedy gambling addicts? Lee paints a grim picture of young video gamers spending thousands of dollars on loot crates (one has to wonder what responsibility the parents have in such a scenario). The addiction of video gaming is winning, and the gateway drug argument Lee is making is outdated and out of touch.
That doesn’t mean he is wrong in criticizing loot crates. They are awful. Any company like EA should just look at the state of American politics and conclude that there is little appetite for these kinds of features. Gamers feel taken advantage of, and they resent the players who get an advantage. This is the mood of 2017, and it’s not going away anytime soon. While I understand the desire from EA Games to make Battlefront 2 profitable year round, it is still disrespectful to the fans. Perhaps now they understand that.
Video gaming is constantly in evolution, and the loot crate fad can be put to rest by bad reviews, declining sales, and a healthy dose of public shaming like what EA Games received. No help from Washington or any other government required.
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