With the economy of the video game industry reported as being larger than the economies of Hollywood and streaming, Andrew Yang wants to do the math on loot boxes. The Democratic presidential candidate, himself a former gamer, told The Washington Post in a Monday interview that gamers in the U.S. deserve “clear guidelines and disclosure of the economics of loot boxes.”
Before a live audience at The Post’s Washington headquarters, Yang discussed hot button issues affecting gamers, including the much-maligned but extremely profitable loot box mechanic that appears in many popular games. Critics have likened the dynamic to online gambling. Yang said that if loot boxes are to exist, game developers should be more transparent with the odds of getting the virtual loot.
“It will cost you additional money in the real world,” Yang said, adding that players are being asked to enter into another contract with the game publisher beyond the cost of simply purchasing the game. “We need to be able to empower players to express their economic preferences up front.”
Yang said that although it’s “perfectly understandable” for corporations to seek more money from an established customer base, in-game economies like loot boxes need more transparency to benefit the consumer.
The inclusion of loot boxes in games has become one of the industry’s most controversial business practices and was adopted from mobile gaming. After spending money on a game’s retail price, a player may be asked to spend more money to buy digital “boxes” containing randomized digital content like new character outfits or weapons. The random returns on the purchases have drawn comparisons of pulling the lever on a slot machine or opening a pack of trading cards. The outrage over the mechanic came to a head when Electronic Arts infamously crammed the mechanic into a Star Wars game, a move that upset Disney executives.
The tactic is now being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission at the insistence of Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-NH. Belgium has already outlawed loot boxes. In China, companies are required to do exactly what Yang proposes and disclose the odds.
While Yang aligns with China’s policy in that instance, when it comes to free speech and gaming, Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, differs. Two U.S.-based entertainment groups — the NBA and Activision Blizzard — both found themselves in a geopolitical firestorm when they had to contend with statements supporting Hong Kong protesters made by people associated with those entities. The NBA supported the rights of Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who made the pro-Hong Kong statement via Twitter, whereas Activision Blizzard punished players who expressed similar sentiments.
This isn’t the first time Yang, a tech investor, has thought about the serious impact of gaming. In his book, “The War on Normal People,” Yang wrote about how gaming brings an immediate sense of reward not found in low-wage work, and how the poorest among us tend to spend more time online, which often means more time gaming online, according to the book.
Yang believes gaming addiction is a real and under-reported problem, and that it should be recognized as a legitimate issue. But as far as the ability of violent games to foster violent tendencies in people, Yang said, it just speaks to politicians’ detached sense of the industry and hobby. It’s similar to the aloofness that was displayed when U.S. lawmakers tried to grill Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, he said. ,only to showcase how little they understood about how Facebook works.
“They misunderstood Facebook and they’re certainly behind the curve when it comes to artificial intelligence,” said Yang, speaking to the issue of automation and labor, one of the pillars of his presidential campaign. “And for video games, no one ever talks about it unless it’s in the context of violence, and even then you just get some hand wringing behind it.”
The deeper causes of the problems pinned on video games, Yang said, are economic and educational.
“To me, games are intrinsic to the human experience, and video games are a natural evolution,” Yang said. “There is vast potential for gaming to serve not just for our entertainment, but for other positive things.”