New video games come with big hidden costs

(NPN) - In the latest video game trend, players excitedly click their way to a treasure box of sorts. Proponents say it improves the experience. Critics say it could loot parents' wallets...or worse.

When playing video games with her brothers, 12-year-old Lilly Hamnett often turns to "loot boxes." "I like loot boxes because it gives me an advantage over my brothers," Hamnett said.

Loot boxes, sometimes called Prize Crates, are digital treasure chests within many popular video games. They're designed to help a player get to the next level.

They typically cost anywhere from about a dollar to up to $40 or more for a bundle. Lily Hamnett's mother, Robin, says her daughter buys hers with her allowance money.

"She's allowed to make decisions about how she spends her money, and so she sometimes chooses to buy loot boxes," Robin Hamnett said.

The boxes are popping up in all kinds of games. While players always get something, they don't know what until a box is opened. That's what bothers Chris Lee, who is a state representative from Hawaii.

"A loot box is a mechanism similar to a slot machine," Lee said. "It could be something of value. It could be something virtually worthless."

Rep. Lee flat out likens the boxes to gambling. "They've really been set up to exploit a lot of the folks out there who play games especially those who are young adults who are not cognitively mature enough," he said.

The World Health Organization is looking into loot boxes too and says, "Loot boxes may increase the intensity of gaming behaviors and, most probably, associated health risks."

Lee has drafted legislation in his state that would prohibit sale of games containing Loot Boxes to those under 21 and require complete transparency when loot boxes are involved.

He hopes other states will follow suit.

"We expect this coming year there's going to be bills introduced at the state level to create transparency and ensure oversight so that people are protected," Lee said.

The gaming industry doesn't buy the concern.

The Entertainment Software Association says loot boxes are a voluntary feature meant to enhance the in-game experience and is not gambling. The Entertainment Software Rating Board agrees saying that: "While the digital goods within a box or pack are mostly randomized, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content."

As for Lily Hamnett, her mom says she's simply having fun trying to beat her brothers.

And when it come to monitoring your kids' spending? "I don't think that needs to be left up to a third party. I think that's about teaching your kids how to be responsible and that's something that should be taught at home," Robin Hamnett said.

Electronic Arts recently announced that its update in Star Wars Battlefront 2 will make loot boxes free and Apple recently announced that apps must now be transparent about the odds of attaining randomized goods before consumers actually make a purchase.

Finally, there are some games in which you can earn your way to a box through game play.

We also reached out to Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of Gambling Studies at UCLA, who says there's not enough research to know whether loot boxes can contribute to unhealthy gambling practices down the road, but he does say that video game addiction is very real.

Dr. Fong says gaming should bring joy. If it's impairing regular regular activities or impacting physical or mental health, contact a professional.

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