How to talk about financially manipulative games (without instigating a media panic)

ABC’s Four Corners has released a report criticising microtransactions in video games, but its unbalanced attack on the industry isn’t the right way to create change.

Microtransactions and loot boxes are nothing new in the world of online gaming – they are a fundamental element of how these games function, which have been debated widely worldwide within the industry over countless years. ABC’s Four Corners has now brought this issue to the general public’s attention, with an investigative report targeting these practices in a strong negative light and attempting to instigate a media panic.

Of course, it is an argument worth making – loot box and microtransaction mechanics are, at the end of the day, made to exploit. But careful consideration must be given to the ways in which we acknowledge and address these issues, and a fearmongering attack on online gaming as a whole is not what is needed to raise industry standards and protect vulnerable players.

The argument being made by Four Corners isn’t one that’s especially new, with the same conversation happening time and time again without any concrete results. Of course, we need to keep having this conversations in order to create change, but unbalanced, negative coverage that seeks to further stigmatise both developers and players isn’t the way forward.

Financially manipulative games
Image: Destiny 2 / Bungie

Exploitative systems in online gaming

In order to assess the state of online gaming, it is important to understand the different mechanics at play and how they function.

Four Corners’ report largely targeted microtransactions, which are consistent, small in-game purchases that take place after a customer’s initial purchase of the game. They highlight loot boxes as the most controversial of these transactions – these are described “like a virtual treasure chest that you can buy, with no guarantee of what you might win”.

A common argument that has been brought up by Four Corners is the link between gaming and gambling, with microtransactions potentially teaching the formative behaviours of wagering chance and impulsively spending to impressionable gamers. This comparison is especially relevant when considering loot boxes, which even feature exciting stimuli when you open your box, similar to the flashing lights of a slot machine, which can factor into growing addiction.

Depending on the game, there are essentially two different motives when making in-game purchases: ‘pay to win’ or ‘pay to fit in’. Pay to win often emerges from ‘free to play’ games, but is also present in paid games like FIFA Ultimate Team, with randomised player packs being the flagship example of loot boxes.

While pay to win presents as more insidious, as players with less to spend are at a significant disadvantage to their competitors that can afford better characters or weapons, ‘pay to play’ also exploits players’ desires. Buying skins and dances in Fortnite is perhaps the most notable example – while it seems fairly harmless and doesn’t unfairly skew the competition, these transactions prey on the inherent desire for social and cultural capital as players seek respect and adoration.

Four Corners also pointed to the role of data analytics in gaming, warning that the way game companies track a player’s information and online activities can be used to make strong predictions about their behaviour. The report criticised how such predatory techniques are used to increase spending in freemium games, ultimately suggesting that that it allows players to be controlled.

Industry responses to Four Corners‘ investigation

Four Corners’ report was met with significant backlash from the Australian gaming community, with many critiquing its unbalanced, messy argument. The Interactive Games and Entertainment Association released a statement praising the benefits of gaming and emphasising a commitment to responsible play, as well as calling out the biased nature of the report:

“For decades, video games have been an incredibly popular and enjoyable pastime for those who play them, including two-thirds of all Australians.  The implications and assumptions about games made in the “Four Corners” piece last night are unbalanced and not reflective of the overwhelmingly positive and enjoyable experience the majority of players have when engaging with the many different kinds of games available today.”

While industry experts are by no means denying the exploitative systems present in many online games, they are pointing out the unfair framing of the gaming industry, which is so often the target of media panics.

While Four Corners called out the calculated pricing strategies that influence how we value in-game purchases, digital cultures scholar Dr. Marcus Carter pointed out how the same tactics are used in restaurants or supermarkets, where they are not attacked for robbing us of our agency. An argument could be made for these scenarios resulting in a tangible product, justifying the monetary spend, however this diminishes the real value that players can find within virtual goods.

Dr. Carter also counters fearmongering surrounding data analytics, noting that “we lack scholarly evidence that data capture allows video game companies to control our minds and our wallets”, emphasising player agency.

Dr. Ben Egliston, digital media research fellow, has also spoken out against unfair targeting of game developers and shifted the conversation towards larger systems at play, suggesting that they don’t choose to exploit and manipulate players in a vacuum. Rather, he highlights how they are working within a platform economy that “exploits small game devs and rewards incumbents, fuelling a dubious push for data analytics and constant optimisation”.

How should we be moving forward?

It can be argued that you don’t need to defend video games – they’re going to persevere through any public criticism as systems keep exploiting and players keep spending – but continuing to stigmatise online gaming isn’t the way to make progress.

Dr. Carter and his colleagues warn of a phenomenon known as ‘concept creep’, which can be seen in the Four Corners investigation when a psychiatrist frames gameplay through the language of addiction, using terms like ‘detox’ and ‘relapse’.

Their research has found “reason to be concerned by how this type of discourse can negatively affect children with healthy digital play habits, by stigmatising their play, causing parent-child conflict and devaluing concern about drug and alcohol addiction”.

While there can be legitimate links between online gaming and gambling for vulnerable individuals, and this should not be ignored, there is no need to conflate this issue and further perpetuate negative associations surrounding online play. Change can only be made when the conversation turns away from instilling fear amongst players (or their parents), and is instead directed towards creating real solutions amongst industry regulators.

The industry is already beginning to shift. On the most dramatic end of the spectrum, Belgium’s government completely banned loot boxes in 2018 after defining them as a form of gambling akin to slot machines.

It’s not only governments that have the power to make change, however, with developers often responding to player feedback. The possibility for community-driven progress is proven by backlash surrounding loot box systems in Star Wars Battlefront, resulting in EA expressing remorse and removing microtransactions from the next Star Wars game altogether.

Industry standards and best practice models need to be put in place to control exploitative methods in online games and limit spending, no doubt. But the way to get there isn’t through deliberately encouraging a media panic.