Five years ago, I opened up my credit card bill and nearly keeled over.
There were $3,570 in charges that I did not recognize. And, each charge was for something from Apple computer’s iTunes division.
I asked my wife, Joan, and she said, “It wasn’t me.”
I asked my then-10-year-old and 8-year-old daughters, and they gave perplexed looks and shook their heads.
I also asked my then-5-year-old, Caitlin, and she gave me a snaggletooth grin and said, “Yes, Daddy, I’ve been buying stuff for my video game.”
Uh, $3,570 worth of stuff in one month?
It’s pretty hard to be upset with a preschooler who doesn’t yet know how to add, subtract, read or count to 100—let alone to 3,570.
My family was a victim of something called a “loot box.”
Loot boxes are an insidious feature of video games that allow in-game purchases using real money for a virtual award that can be used in games.
It’s pure evil.
Basically, you give real money for a chance to get something that is make believe. It might be a virtual sword, a key or some device that can be used in a game.
Finally, five years after my family’s experience, someone in the Illinois General Assembly is taking action. State Rep. Barbara Hernandez (D-83rd) has introduced legislation to require this warning label on games with the loot-box feature:
“Attention Parents: A Loot Box System exists in this game that permits an unlimited amount of REAL MONEY to be spent without any age restriction. REAL MONEY is exchanged for random digital items. This process has been linked to REAL-LIFE GAMBLING ADDICTIONS in both children and adults. Please regulate your own spending as well as your children’s spending.”
Hernandez’s bill has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. If it becomes law, Illinois will be the first state to in any way regulate loot boxes.
“The lobbyist for the industry keeps telling me that no other state has passed this. My response is ‘Someone has to be first,’” Hernandez said.
According to the National Law Review, in 2018, legislation was introduced in California, Hawaii, Minnesota and Washington to regulate the gaming feature. None of the bills became law. That’s evidence of the amount of clout—and money—the video game industry brings into the mix.
Many readers of this column know that I’m not a big fan of government regulation, but, I am an advocate of transparency.
Hernandez’s bill strikes the right balance. It informs parents, but it doesn’t prohibit the feature.
The inspiration for the legislation came from Marcos Beltran and several other constituents of Hernandez’ in the Aurora area. Beltran was the advisor to several video gaming clubs at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora.
“I love video games. I’ve been playing them all of my life,” Beltran said. “But, these loot boxes are predatory, and they are in games oriented toward children. Parents look at the game and see bunnies hopping around, and they think it is harmless. And, the games are free or cost very little. But, what parents may not realize is that loot boxes are in these games, and they can be detrimental.”
Beltran said that the gaming feature is not only harmful to family pocketbooks but also to developing minds.
“It teaches children to gamble. They use real money for a chance for a virtual reward. It can be an addictive behavior. I don’t care whether adults choose to gamble; how they spend their money is their business. But, children need to be protected,” he said.
Tara Ryan, vice president for state government affairs at the Entertainment Software Association, did not return phone calls seeking the video gaming industry’s perspective.
“These companies are making millions of dollars through these mistakes made by kids and other family members,” Hernandez said. “A lot of parents believe that, after a video game is purchased, a kid can only play that video game and there’s nothing else they can purchase from it. But, of course, technology has evolved, and companies got creative in trying to make more money.”
She added that no one knows how many families have been victimized by the loot-box feature. Embarrassment keeps some victims silent. Other don’t know where to turn—or how to keep it from happening again.
In my family’s case, we were able to resolve the matter.
I spent a month calling Apple and beseeching them to please forgive the expenses that my 5-year-old incurred. After about 30 days of groveling, Apple finally released me from the debt and emailed me a complex set of instructions on how to set up my daughter’s iPad so this would never happen again.
My solution was to take my credit card off my Apple account. That isn’t easy. Once you put a credit card on an account, the company makes it exceedingly difficult to remove it—unless you replace it with, you guessed it, another credit card.
My work around was that I bought a gift card at the local dollar store for a small amount and used that to replace the credit card and to keep from having excessive charges again. And, our kids are instructed not to make a purchase unless it has been approved by both my wife and me.
My family learned about the predatory practices of video game companies the hard way.
Hernandez’s bill would warn families up front. That’s a step in the right direction.
Editor’s note: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and can be contacted at email@example.com.