The cruel psychology of the arcade aside, the video game industry was long built on simple economics. Someone made a game, you bought it and had fun. When internet-connected home consoles became common, so did downloadable content — add-ons to a game that could be purchased for smaller sums after the game’s release. There was a lot of hand wringing at the time that the model could be exploited, with publishers possibly withholding content that would otherwise be in the base game to make extra money.
Insofar as the hand wringing was about slippery slopes, it appears warranted. DLC has evolved in many different branches, including tons of low-cost microtransactions — often as simple as new outfits — and story missions that end up being deeply important to the base game, instead of simply adding to it (Mass Effect 3 being a good example). Much-maligned pay-to-win models have been a scourge in smartphone games (and to some extent console games with online multiplayer), rewarding high-paying players with real gameplay advantages instead of just fun cosmetic items.
Any model that includes transactions outside of the cost of the base game has received some pushback from the gaming community, but nothing has caught the attention of lawmakers until loot boxes. With loot boxes, it’s no longer enough to simply pay for cosmetic items you want — virtual items come in mystery boxes that may or may not have the item you’re after, prompting some players to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in an attempt to get the exact costume or item they want. Paying for loot boxes usually isn’t necessary — games like Overwatch deliver free boxes for leveling up — but the slow rate of freebies usually pushes players to open their wallets.
Usually, the government would chalk this up to the free market — if a player decides it’s worth spending $500 to get the Black Cat D.Va skin, they’re free to do so! The problem is when that player is under 18, and that’s the source of the recent legislative backlash against loot boxes.