Game addiction is an ongoing issue that has been recognized by the World Health Organisation, officially deemed under the name, ‘Gaming disorder’. Addiction can be defined as a pattern of gaming behavior characterized by impaired control over gaming (World Health Organisation, 2019). Each new game release brings more evidence to the fact that video games are specifically designed to exploit and manipulate human addictive psychology (Adair, 2018). A design feature called microtransactions has a reputation for mainly being notorious in mobile games and has now shifted into bigger game titles causing controversy within the games industry.
The definition of microtransactions can be described as a business model that allows the user to purchase virtual items for small amounts of real money (Colgrossi, 2018). The issue with microtransactions is that it is seen as a form of unregulated gambling that intends to prolong gaming time, increasing the potential for game addiction among its users (Smith, 2017). Ruben (2018) states that people do not value currency itself but the many possibilities that can come from it. Microtransactions act as the toll bridge between the user and the wanted product, abusing the power behind values.
From the game industry’s perspective, microtransactions are important because they enable developers to deliver an ongoing service (Davis, 2017). They also allow dedicated players to support the game company for they continue maintaining and providing new content (Barth, 2018). For smaller game developers, they have succumbed to this form of revenue because they see it as their only source of income to finance their products (Wells, 2017).
In the following essay, there are three points made against microtransactions and one counterargument to justify their importance for the games industry. The main argument points that will be discussed are the effects of microtransactions and their connection to game addiction, the exploitation of loot boxes and their significant link to gambling, and how legal action has been taken on microtransactions. The counterargument explains further how some developers are utilizing microtransactions ethically within the games industry.
Point 1 – Microtransactions and their influence on the behavior of people with game addiction
A research report mentioned by Gray (2018) finds evidence that video gaming can raise low levels of dopamine in the brain and when it begins to accumulate, it can begin a cycle of addiction. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is mainly associated with the brain and is activated around activities that include pleasure and reward systems (Fader, 2019). When applied to video game addiction, dopamine acts as a major catalyst that can heavily affect the player’s behavior toward responsibilities and relationships. Especially when microtransactions are entirely based on rewards. Linden (2011) mentions that studies revealed that dopamine within a person was at its largest when they had scored the highest amount in a game and were promised a cash reward prize. This reveals that players are more compelled to play a game if they knew there was going to be a prize or some sort of reward after finishing it. However, microtransactions can induce the player to make a purchase on either fact that it appeals to them or it can contribute to their progression within the game.
A popular and high-grossing mobile game called Clash of Clans from Supercell implements microtransactions that offer in-game currency known as gems. These can then be used by the player to accelerate progression and purchase premium items that affect their gaming experience. Loomis (2015) believes what makes Clash of Clans so appealing is the sense of gratification that hooks the player by constantly rewarding them when they first play. This makes the game seem financially harmless because it rewires people to think they can progress without the use of microtransactions. In addition, Johnston (2016) states that developers are intentionally making games with a ‘flow’, which is described to appeal to our sense of autonomy and satisfaction.
Therefore, the implementation of microtransactions is an effective method because it can affect the dopamine within an individual, and further lead them to game addiction.
Point 2 - The exploitation of loot boxes and their addictive qualities linked to gambling.
The favorite child of microtransactions is loot boxes, a controversial method that has been used in AAA titles that allow players to obtain items through chance. According to Mcbride & Derevensky (2016), this controversy is because there have been speculations about its parallels with gambling, as they both operate on similar psychological and behavioral principles. The reason for the unpredictable outcomes from loot boxes is that it operates on variable ratio reinforcement schedules, specifically designed to encourage players to continue playing and eventually spend more (Taylor, 2018). In the game industry, this is also called operant conditioning which refers to increasing or decreasing the chance percentages of a specific response in a game (Noren, 2019). This encourages players to keep progressing within a game until they receive the items, they have been looking for finally turn up. This psychological and behavioral principle is also aimed at the dopamine system in an attempt to cause the individual to rely on the idea of chance, in an effort to get their reward (Wiltshire, 2017).
Coincidently, gambling machines also run on these same principles requiring users to constantly play until they receive a satisfactory reward. Zendle & Cairns (2019) state that there are concerns about the similarities between the two and that they can lead to problem gambling amongst gamers. Problem gambling can often lead to consequences that result in the neglect of relationships and responsibilities.
With the idea of microtransactions intensifying, Electronic Art’s release of Star Wars Battlefront II public beta resulted in negative criticism. Jackson (2017) explains that the newly implemented loot boxes rewarded players with game-changing items known as star cards. This introduced pay-to-win mechanics that pressured players to purchase more loot boxes knowing that they could boost their gameplay experience. In addition to this issue, EA made the decision to lock away iconic characters from the franchise behind a hefty price tag that could only be bought using in-game credits. This tactic encouraged players to purchase microtransactions instead of the alternative to grind an estimated 40 hours to earn enough credits for one character (Hruska, 2018).
Blizzard’s Overwatch features loot boxes that contain cosmetic-only items, which means it has no effect on the overall gameplay. However, according to Garst (2017), Overwatch’s loot boxes have made a huge contribution to the normalization of gambling in AAA games. This is because Blizzard only offers the player the option to purchase loot boxes, forcing them to roll a chance on their desired item thus resulting in a lot of money. The issue here is that people justify this as the ‘right’ way to do microtransactions, but the problem of gambling addiction still stands.
Therefore, loot boxes can be linked back to video game addiction as it has the potential to exploit players unethically.
Point 3 – Legal action on loot boxes from video games
Furthermore, the explanation of the recent points has revealed evidence between microtransactions and their connection to game addiction. With its ability to raise dopamine levels within the brain and its similarities to the mechanics used in gambling, anyone can see this as unethical in the games industry. There have been Government officials from various countries have acted on video game addiction by suggesting or even enforcing laws to ban microtransactions.
There have also been people that have personally reached out to game companies in an attempt to raise awareness about microtransactions. An example of this is a 19-year-old that spent $17,000 on games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Smite, and The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth over the course of three years (Gach, 2017). He posted an open letter to EA as a desperate plea to the designers to look at the unethical impacts that microtransactions can have on certain people. Using his experience as evidence, it is enough to see that there needs to be a change. This just shows how much the design of a video game can affect an individual financially and mentally.
In the United States, Capel (2019) reports that a US senator lead the proposal of a bill called ‘The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act’ in an attempt to ban pay-to-win microtransactions and loot boxes. It accuses game companies of using predatory practices that they believed to be specifically aiming their products at a younger audience. Using Candy Crush as their evidence against microtransactions, its colorful theme, and energetic gameplay glosses over the fact they are selling bundles full of item boosters for $150. The senator strongly finds this as an exploitation, stating that a game is designed for kids and that developers should abstain from monetizing addiction (Casiano, 2019).
Another ban was passed in the Netherlands and Belgium because it was in violation of their gambling legislation (Gerken, 2018). The Minister of Justice for Belgium stated that loot boxes were dangerous to the mental health of children as it was presented to them through a mixture of gaming and gambling. In order to follow these laws, game companies must develop and implement loot boxes that are inaccessible to minors or entirely remove the feature. The AAA game companies Blizzard, Valve, and 2K Games made the decision to scrap their microtransaction features to avoid the hefty fine (Wales, 2018).
As harsh as banning microtransactions can be, this may be the push that game developers need to rethink their business models and approach them in a more ethical means.
Point 4 – An example of how microtransactions can be used ethically by game companies within the games industry
Despite the surrounding problems with microtransactions, all of them cannot be blamed on the game companies themselves. The business model that they enforce requires consumers who are willing to purchase the product and continue playing it. Muncy (2017) explains how game companies have been using these strategies for a long time and deems them as necessary for business I agree with this statement because game companies are attempting to accomplish what any normal business would do, and that is to make money.
For example, the game company Digital Extremes developed the game Warframe which is a free-to-play shooter that offers microtransactions. An article by Landsly (2018), explains how the game has handled its online services well by allowing players to earn in-game credits and premium currency all within the base game. This sort of method views microtransactions as an optional choice rather than a necessary requirement to progress in the game. Warframe has also integrated a store that showcases cosmetic items that you can buy individually without having to go through loot boxes (Chee, 2017). This eliminates the gambling factor that is found in loot boxes thus decreasing the potential to cause addiction among players.
Noting that this is a free-to-play game, means that the only flow of income for the game company is through microtransactions. Video game development can be quite expensive but AAA studios that have access to a bigger budget do not have to rely so much on such methods. Whereas smaller indie studios are limited to a smaller budget, resorting to the implementation of microtransactions. Not only is it benefit the developer, but it also allows them to continue delivering new content and services to the players (Green, 2018). Overall, players can not only blame the developers for doing their job but should also consider that they are the ones purchasing the products.
Clearly, it can be concluded that when microtransactions are used unethically it can lead to an increase in game addiction in players. The argument points throughout the essay have discussed some of the effects and influences that this issue can cause in the games industry. This includes the explanation of dopamine within the brain, the link that loots boxes have with gambling addiction, and legal issues that resulted in the ban on microtransactions. Dopamine is activated when the player feels a sense of pleasure or accomplishment which is a crucial factor for game addiction. Mainly concerning the similarities that it has with gambling; this has led countries to completely ban games with this feature in an attempt to protect children from an addictive lifestyle. However, the counterargument for microtransactions explains its importance for smaller game companies as it is their only source of income. Along with this, Warframe was used as an example for its use of microtransactions that could be perceived as an ethical online multiplayer game.
Game addiction is an issue that is increasingly becoming more of a threat to the games industry but if game companies work together with their players, they can provide a more ethical future for games.