The government backlash against video game loot boxes—the randomized in-game item purchases that some observers and legislators consider a form of gambling—moved from Hawaii to Washington state earlier this month. That's when a group of three Democratic state senators introduced a bill that would require the state gambling commission to examine loot boxes and determine "whether games and apps containing these mechanisms are considered gambling under Washington law."
“What the bill says is, ‘Industry, state: sit down to figure out the best way to regulate this,’” Orcas Island Senator and bill coauthor Kevin Ranker told the Tacoma News Tribune. “It is unacceptable to be targeting our children with predatory gambling masked in a game with dancing bunnies or something.”
The bill text puts specific focus on the question of whether children who "may be more vulnerable to gambling addiction" should be allowed to access games with loot boxes, and on the question of "transparency" around "the odds of receiving each type of virtual item." The latter point took on additional salience last month as Apple required such odds to be posted alongside games with loot boxes.
Actual government regulation of loot boxes in Washington is still a ways off, though. Ranker's bill needs to be approved by the full Washington state legislature (which is narrowly held by Democrats) and be signed by the governor before being referred to the gambling commission. At that point, the commission would have until December 1 to form its recommendations for any regulatory and enforcement system the state might set up.
The Washington legislative effort against loot boxes comes after Hawaii state representative Chris Lee started a major push to get such randomized in-game items treated as gambling in his state. Lee told Ars last month he's been reaching out to dozens of legislators in other states to expand the effort; Washington's Ranker appeared in a video Lee posted last month alongside legislators from Connecticut, North Carolina, Georgia, and Minnesota expressing concern about loot boxes in games.
"In Washington state we have a number of the top gaming companies in the world located in our region," Ranker says in the video. "We need to start this conversation, and we need to start it now."
Washington's state gambling commission previously dipped its toe into the gaming business back in 2016, when it sent Valve a letter seeking action against "skin trading" sites that let players wager using in-game cosmetics. Valve pushed back against the state's concerns at the time, and the threatening letter doesn't appear to have led to any further government action in the intervening months.