Predatory transactions in video games

You may be familiar with the term “microtransactions”. For the uninitiated, it’s a catchall term used to describe real money purchases made within a video game for extra content used solely within that game. If you have a method of payment saved on a device where games are played, (Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play Store, Steam, the Playstation and Xbox Stores) it’s all too easy to make a fast in-game purchase to even the odds against digital antagonists or give you a quick boost that can help you through that pesky level you just can’t seem to beat. It’s a slippery slope though, and scary to think about younger gamers who might not have the same self control or realize that 5 bucks here and there becomes $500 before you know it. The worst part is that game studios know that and will take full advantage of it.

The first games to introduce microtransactions were Habbo Hotel (2001) and Second Life (2003). The latter of which reportedly made $3,596,674 from microtransactions in September of 2005 alone.

Microtransactions are usually just $1 to $10 at a time and can add up fast. Some can run in excess of $100, though. Many games will offer “loot boxes” in exchange for real money which contain items such as unlockable characters, weapons and armor, character actions (dances, special moves), power-ups, collectables, and character and weapon skins. Many games, especially on mobile devices, are classified by gamers as “pay-to-win” or “freemium”. These games would be impossible to win (or at least take a VERY long time to progress through) without paying for upgrades in addition to anything you may have paid to purchase the game in the first place. In the case of Asura’s Wrath, you quite literally had to pay $6.99 for the real ending to the game!

Other purchases can include premium modes or continuing to play after your character has died. You can also pay to speed up actions that would normally take hours or days of real time to complete such as waiting to harvest crops or waiting for more energy to complete more in-game missions.

Developing and marketing video games, whether they be for PS4, Xbox One, PC, or mobile (tablets and smartphones), must be difficult and stressful and I think any decent person would agree that the people and the studios that create the games that the world plays should be compensated well for their effort but some studios really cash in on simple human psychology: winning makes us happy. That’s not a surprise to anyone but, according to an article on Touro University Worldwide, game studios know just how to manipulate us into paying over and over again for in-game assistance.

Kids are the easiest target. In addition to the good feeling of doing well in a game we enjoy, younger gamers feel pressure to purchase extras just to keep up with their friends. The purchases available in the massively successful game Fortnite (which I wrote about more in depth in this post) are only cosmetic e.g. character and weapon skins, sidekicks, sweet dance moves. These items have no effect on the actual gameplay so they offer no advantage. Still the hordes of young kids that play Fortnite will feel left behind if they don’t have the newest, coolest content available. According to this story by the BBC, a 16 year old spent £2,000 or almost $2,600USD playing an EA basketball game.

So how much can a game studio bring in from microtransactions? It’s disgusting. At its peak, Clash of Clans made $1,000,000 PER DAY. It’s reported that Electronic Arts, creators of many popular sports games, earned a whopping $2.87 billion in 2017. In the same year, Activision Blizzard, the makers of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Candy Crush and many other powerhouse game franchises, made $7.16 billion in revenue. That’s more than the GDP of Guam.

Luckily, the governments of the world aren’t just sitting around letting it happen either. Because it’s almost unanimously seen as a form of gambling, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has introduced legislation to ban microtransactions that target kids. In April 2018, the Netherlands and Belgium both banned the sale of microtransactions in games sold in their countries as well.

Until the time when more is done to protect gamers (especially young gamers) from a predatory game industry, I would advise removing any methods of payment from devices or accounts that children under 18 have access to, because sometimes it’s just a matter of tapping the screen a few times and next thing you know, you’ve lost hundreds of dollars.

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