Some Hawaii legislators are wondering if today’s youthful video game players are at risk of becoming tomorrow’s problem gamblers.

Last week the state Senate passed a resolution to create an advisory group to monitor gambling-style practices in the digital gaming industry.

Video games were once a wholesome family and community experience. When my father and mother worked at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam during the buildup to the first Gulf War, most children like me were unsupervised and left to do our own thing.

I was given a ton of video game consoles and games to keep me preoccupied, on the condition that I would “stay put” and not wander around the base.

I quickly became friends with other Andersen kids who would all come to my house to play video games, either because they were anxious about a parent being on a mission somewhere or just didn’t have anywhere else to go. Sometimes, they were mainly looking for a meal.

In that sense, Sega and Nintendo were an important part of helping military communities stay together in the 1990s.

Concept of video game scene. Two soldiers with rifles wear black clothes and holds on to rifles. Sparks fly around in the air.

Online gaming can capture our children’s attention like nothing else in the entertainment world.

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Today, video games are deeply immersive, internet-connected experiences that virtually bring together people from all over the world. Gone are the days when kids save quarters to play coin-op games at the arcade after school, or gather at a friend’s house with chips and soda to play Super Mario.

In my childhood, gaming was a niche industry. Today, the video game market is larger than both Hollywood and the music industry combined.

Legislators are right to be concerned about the direction video games are going. Nothing else in the market has the unlimited access to our children’s attention that the electronic entertainment industry commands. It has found a way to combine gaming, social media and online shopping.

Video games pull impressionable young minds into digital environments that can easily influence their developing minds and shape their worldview. And if parents think they can limit gaming by controlling access to the PlayStation, Xbox or a personal computer, they should think again. Google is about to release a new streaming service that makes it possible to play any game on a cell phone or tablet.

Good government has a unique responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of children, especially whenever a parent is not around. As modern video games often employ no age-verification system, children who play games online can find themselves in all kinds of compromising situations with real-world consequences.

Industry tactics include “pay to win” (games designed to intentionally disadvantage players so they have to purchase power-ups with real money), “loot crates” (random packages of purchasable, downloadable content sold as possibly containing rare game power-ups) and “augmented reality” (games which overlap the video game world with the real world, some of which result in players engaging in dangerous or illegal behavior).

A little bit of caution, and possibly regulation, isn’t unreasonable.

This isn’t the first time Hawaii legislators have looked into online gaming.

Benevolent but naïve parents might give their kids, for example, a game that has the ability to store credit card information for an ongoing subscription. Children playing games that have loot crates in them might be tempted to purchase dozens, even hundreds of crates, hoping to get the power-ups they want, not realizing the financial implications of what they’re doing.

State Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs officials think this is a problem. In last week’s joint hearing of the Senate Government Operations and Judiciary committees, they submitted written testimony that stated, “paying real money to unlock ‘loot boxes’ without knowing what kind of reward is inside” amounts to learning how to gamble.

An industry representative disagrees.

In earlier testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, Electronic Software Association vice president Tom Foulkes opposed the resolution, saying, “Loot boxes are neither gambling nor exploitive of consumers. With a loot box, a player does not place a wager that may be returned or increased. Rather, the player spends a set amount to acquire a limited number of virtual items.”

The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii also opposed the resolution, cautioning that “The video game industry today is the largest sector of the entertainment business in the United States with $43 billion in sales in 2018. This is an industry that is creating new, highly educated, highly compensated jobs around the world. Stakeholders in Hawaii should look at ways to support the progress of new industries and sectors and continue to create a positive environment for the high-tech industry.”

But one self-described “lifelong gamer,” Will Giese, submitted testimony supporting a gaming advisory group, saying, “This massive industry that provides entertainment for billions of people around the world should be afforded the same scrutiny as every other entertainment industry.”

This isn’t the first time Hawaii legislators have looked into online gaming. Just last year they considered two bills to prohibit sales of loot box games to consumers younger than 21, but neither passed.

This may be an area where both government and private interests can find a common ground that benefits everyone. For starters, something needs to be done to protect our children online, even if it means implementing a better form of age verification. This clearly merits having a local task force to discuss how our keiki can best be protected.

Second, perhaps there may also be a way to use this task force to consider legalized, but well-regulated, gambling for consenting adults in Hawaii.

A task force should put everything on the table: online gaming, gambling, the works.

In developing regulations, we should not only think in terms of restrictions to be imposed, but also potential revenue boosters. There’s nothing wrong with all sides acknowledging that something isn’t working and coming together to find a solution.

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