You don’t have to examine video games very closely to see the overt ways in which they manipulate us. They always have, and always will. Each design decision that goes into a game has been carefully selected and engineered to make us react in a specific way. As consumers, that’s what we sign up for. Mostly.
Enter micro-transactions. The point at which the manipulative video game you’ve been playing for hours and hours asks you to get out your wallet. Where the developers hide aspects of their game behind a paywall, whether it be cosmetic items, better in-game gear, or entire swaths of narrative content. Micro-transactions have been the subject of intense controversy for the past few months, as several video game publishers have gotten particularly egregious with how they implement them in their games.
The discussion has been going on for longer than that, however. Mobile “freemium” games have been around for years. Clash of Clans was free to download when it released in 2012, but not-so-subtly encouraged its players to pay real currency at the store to save time on acquiring better in-game buildings and units. Relatively speaking, this was harmless, since the price of entry was nothing. Sure, you could grind your way through the game, investing the 5+ months to fully upgrade your level 9 town hall, or just give the developers cash to save a bit of time. However, exploiting players’ impatience in this manner has arguably set the precedent for what the video game industry is seeing today in the behavior of its AAA publishers.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came in the form of Star Wars Battlefront II, a hotly anticipated game published by Electronic Arts and developed by EA Dice. In pre-release coverage of the game, Electronic Arts revealed that players could purchase loot boxes containing randomized power-ups that gave tangible benefits on the battlefield. This prompted a tsunami of internet hate to descend upon the game, as players were frustrated by this obvious “pay-to-win” model. EA’s community team cobbled together a defense, but it was downvoted so hard by Reddit that it made history.
EA’s decision to put pay-to-win mechanics in a game that’s already fully priced at $60 is an example of how publishers want to treat games as services, rather than products. From a business standpoint, it makes sense. Why should a game only make you $60, when you can have the consumer keep on paying to play the game, like a subscription service? This makes the game appear to be a safer investment, appeals to shareholders, and so ensures that the company remains financially solvent.
This is all obviously at the expense of the player, whom in many cases are children or young adults who don’t quite grasp the economics of the big picture. Some of them might even develop legitimate gambling addictions which make them spend $17,000 on in-game purchases before having to see a therapist. This sort of unbridled financial irresponsibility is the exact reason why micro-transactions should be subject to the same legislative oversight as any other gambling service. There are very few differences between a randomized loot box and a slot machine, from the shot of dopamine your brain gets when you win right down to the tactile act of opening a box or pulling a lever just to see what pops out.
At the time of me writing this, Belgium and Hawaii have already entered talks on how they are going to approach micro-transactions in the future. No legal conclusions have been made yet, but there have been mentions of straight-up banning games that contain these pay-to-win mechanics, which would certainly be a bold step in a different direction. Hawaii has even gone so far as to call EA’s behavior “predatory”, which is not a notion to be taken lightly. Regardless, it gives me hope for the future that people are now finally sitting up and paying attention to this, as I’ve been on a soapbox about it for years.
Games are designed to manipulate us, I get that. But when real money gets involved, it undermines the trust between designer and player, no matter how crippling the paywall might be. Whether a game’s micro-transactions are harmless, damaging, or anywhere in-between, the damage is done when someone decides that people should pay extra for something they would otherwise have to earn.