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Andrew Yang weighs in on loot boxes, Hong Kong and video game addiction

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks with The Washington Post reporter Robert Costa during the Washington Post Live's "The 2020 Candidates" event. (Bruce Vartan Boyajian for The Washington Post)
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With the economy of the video game industry larger than those 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 interview held at The Post’s offices, Yang sat with Launcher to discuss 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.”

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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 player outfits or weapons. The random returns on the spend have drawn comparisons to 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-N.H.). Belgium has already outlawed loot boxes. And in China, companies are required to do exactly what Yang proposes and disclose the odds.

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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. The NBA and Activision Blizzard, two giant U.S.-based entertainment behemoths, 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.

“What we’re seeing now is two of China’s driving priorities starting to be at odds with each other,” Yang said. “Their priority is maintaining robust economic growth. Number two is social order and suppressing any political dissidence. ... The unfortunate reality is that these are the kinds of decisions we’re forcing companies to make every single day because of the globalized nature of the industry."

Yang, a tech investor, said that the situation seems similar to the complaints he hears from executives who aren’t well equipped to tackle broad global issues over human rights.

“A lot of these companies are like, ‘Why am I making these decisions?’” Yang said. “And these decisions end up being massive investments of resources. They’re actually looking for some sort of guideline or assistance. These are from companies who have historically not been excited about having any government hand in their industries. It just goes to show we’re putting more and more companies into untenable positions.”

This isn’t the first time Yang 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.

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Yang believes gaming addiction is a real and underreported 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 displayed when U.S. lawmakers tried to grill Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, he said, only to showcase how little they understand 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.”

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