In their relatively short life as an art form, video games have been the cause of nearly as many moral panics as television and rock and roll. Thanks to lynch mobs of concerned parents and crusading politicians, video games have been in the dock for everything from eroding attention spans to fostering addiction and even inspiring real-life violence. For the most part these concerns are as ridiculous as the 18th century panic that the vogue for reading novels would cause readers to lose the ability to distinguish fact from fiction, and emulate the behaviour of the characters they read about (Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was even banned in several countries over fears of copycat suicides).
Ignoring the risible concerns of digital violence warping impressionable young minds, the fear that seems the most reasonable on the surface is that gaming is an inherently addictive pursuit. The rush that gaming can provide is caused by the sudden release of dopamine, and critics fret that the impressionable youth will hunger after this thrill in the way a smoker craves nicotine. Unfortunately for our moral guardians this argument falls apart on closer inspection. Though it’s true that gameplay raises the brain’s dopamine levels, it does so by roughly the same extent as eating a slice of pizza. As a result, it’s hard not to view the World Health Organisation’s recent decision to formally list so-called ‘problem gaming’ as a mental health problem as something of a knee jerk reaction. Whilst gamers can certainly get caught up in deeply unhealthy amounts of play time, the general consensus amongst professionals is that this is a symptom of other underlying mental issues rather than the causative source.
However, in the last few years many of the largest game developers have started to add in legitimately troubling features to many of the biggest games on market. Known as ‘microtransactions’, these involve paying small amounts of cash within the videogame to unlock extra content, be it special outfits, new weapons or even entirely new characters to play as. This is a new phenomenon, only possible due to the fact that most games are now always online, which allows players to make the purchases mid-game, whilst the developers can design and add the extra paid-for content indefinitely after the game is released. For the impulsive or young gamer, the temptation to ‘pay to win’ can be irresistible (as often the purchasable content is dramatically better than that available in the base game, or would take weeks or even months to obtain without paying), leading to larger and larger purchases on a game that already cost £50 just to own.
The most common and insidious form that microtransactions take are so-called ‘loot boxes’. Whilst there are already complaints to be made about tempting gamers with a steady stream of in-game purchases, at the very least they are paying for a specific (digital) item and then receiving it. In contrast, with the almost ubiquitous loot boxes the content is randomised so you only find out what you’ve purchased after the money has been spent. For example, in a football game you might spend money hoping to unlock Lionel Messi and instead find yourself in possession of the reserve line-up of Hull City circa 1953. Loot boxes are cheap, generally around £2.50 each depending on the game, and you’ll generally not get anything you want on the first, second or even tenth try. However, this element adds a frisson that’s less to do with the usual dopamine surge that comes from gaming and something much closer to the thrill of your lottery numbers coming up.
Gaming corporations sweat blood denying that loot boxes are a form of gambling, but it is very hard to claim they’re anything else. There are too many stories to count of children (and adults) spending hundreds or even thousands of pounds of their (or their parent’s) money on loot boxes. When you purchase a game digitally through a console the debit or credit card is saved to the machine, enabling anyone else with access to the machine to spend to their heart’s content, making loot boxes particularly dangerous for young children who don’t understand the value of money. The corporate gaming giant Electronic Arts have attempted to claim that loot boxes are “like Kinder Eggs”, but considering that games like Fortnite are raking in over $300 million a month in microtransactions alone, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the business model might be a little more nefarious than the chocolatier’s.
Game corporations argue that the industry standard of £50 for a AAA game (an informal classification used for video games produced and distributed by a mid-sized or major publisher with high development and marketing budgets) has become a hard ceiling that consumers are unwilling to breach, yet as technology improves video game development costs continue to spiral upwards. The logic behind loot boxes and microtransactions is that they are the only way for these games to turn a profit without raising the game price beyond what the market can withstand. This is a claim that should be viewed with scepticism; the rise in development costs is in large part due to increased corporate meddling, which sees months of work frequently thrown out to pursue a new focus group led direction. If anything, with the rise of digital-only games, game developers are raking in more cash than ever as physical production costs are cut to zero. Thanks to microtransactions and loot boxes, Grand Theft Auto 5, a game which came out seven years ago, has reaped over a billion in profits just from in-game purchases.
Video gaming as an industry is growing at a vertiginous rate, and whilst there are always going to be critics who will always see them as something inherently childish, or even malign, there is a truly amazing potential for artistic expression to be found within them. However with loot boxes and gambling-adjacent tactics, AAA games corporations (microtransactions are basically non-existent in most indie productions) are casting a pall over the entire industry and potentially exposing children to something a million times more damaging than all the digital violence ever coded. They need to do better.