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Microtransactions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Microtransactions in gaming have been around awhile now, and are likely to be with us for some time.  They’ve been covered in the gaming press over and over, and discussed by gamers on various platforms ad nauseam.  I did find a pretty good breakdown of the history of this practice, the whys and hows that I don’t want to bore you with.

If you want, hop over to the Intelligent Economist and take a look.  Despite what we think of them, there is a purpose to some of them and it isn’t entirely nefarious.  We, as gamers, also have to accept that to a certain extent we are responsible for how widespread they are and how long they’re likely to be around.  They aren’t all bad however, so if you’re expecting me to go on a long-winded tirade about the evils of microtransactions, you’re only half right.

The Good
There is some benefit to microtransactions, believe it or not.  The best example I have in my experience is with Guild Wars 2.  If you aren’t familiar, it’s a popular MMO that’s been around for almost 6 years now.  It has no subscription model, and has been receiving constant updates, improvements, patches, and free content updates all that time.  It also has microtransactions.  They’re all cosmetic and convenience items though; nothing that’s considered pay-to-win.  It’s a necessary function of keeping a game going with constant maintenance and updates and it’s all optional.  If you want another character slot, you can get that.  A cool outfit?  They have that, too.  A better sword that you can only get in the online store?  No, not going to happen.

See, there’s a reason to have either a subscription model or microtransactions in this case.  I’m old enough to remember a time before the internet and online gaming.  When you bought a game in the early years of our hobby, it either worked or it didn’t.  There were no updates on the regular, or added content you could just log in and start playing.  We didn’t have servers maintained by the game company to play on whenever we wanted.  Even in the early days of online shooters like Medal of Honor, most of the servers were paid for and maintained by gaming communities and clans that paid a lot of money sometimes to make the game available to play online.

This was well before World of Warcraft revolutionized online RPGs, but there has always been a cost.  You don’t just make a game, put it out there, and expect the initial sales to fund the ongoing support, updates, and server maintenance.  Even now people still play the original Guild Wars on servers maintained by the company since 2005 with no monthly subscription.  Whether we like it or not, microtransactions in Guild Wars 2 help make that possible 13 years after release.

In these cases, I can’t really fault companies for using this model.  We really only have a couple of options if we want our games to be available with that sort of content and care for a long period of time.  It’s not like a game that’s released, and once purchased has no real contact with the developer any longer unless there’s a patch.  Some of these companies hire dedicated staff to do nothing but update a game while they also try to make new ones.  As long as they aren’t dipping into the pay-to-win or loot box model I don’t really see an issue since it keeps me from having a monthly bill just to play the game.

The Bad
Not all pay-to-win is bad, as long as there is a reasonable time gate sort of option to unlock the same content.  I don’t mind a game company offering early access to weapons or equipment for people who want to burn their money if I can do the same thing over a few hours of gameplay.  In a way, I like the feeling of achievement one gets from unlocking weapons and kits in games like Battlefield 4.  Sure, those higher tier weapons are better, and for a time people who paid to unlock those kits would have an advantage but it seemed like a fair trade off.  I’m going to play the game anyway, and I don’t care to spend any extra money just to have a weapon I’m going to get eventually.  Where it gets bad is when the time to unlock isn’t reasonable.

Battlefront 2 was a good example of this, though I thought the game was garbage before loot boxes were even mentioned.  Not only were there microtransactions, but there was also a randomized element incorporated into the loot boxes.  It was likened to gambling by some and in general it was just a bad idea.  The time it would take to unlock everything through grinding was exorbitant, which would leave players at a disadvantage in game for a lot longer than is reasonable.  The feature was met with a great deal of uproar from gamers, and EA made some temporary changes, but ultimately people still bought the game.  Sales for BF2 did suffer, and it has raised questions about what is acceptable regarding microtransactions.

The Ugly
The ugly truth is as long as people keep buying them, companies will keep doing it.  That’s sort of how the market works.  Companies try different things to make money.  If that thing sells, then the company will believe that is what the market wants.  If it doesn’t, then they try something else.  We can rant and rail all we want, but at the end of the day there’s only one language a business understands.  Will the awful sales of BF2 be enough to deter companies from using this tactic?  I don’t know, it’s too early to tell.  I can tell you if the next game from EA or Activision has microtransactions and people spend money on them, they’ll forget about the Battlefront sales.  It’s not a pleasant thought, but we are partially to blame for this marketing ploy.

The other ugly head of this beast is the manipulative marketing.  It’s one thing to present things for people to buy and let them decide.  It’s entirely another to make it so enjoying the game at all depends on spending more money over the purchase price.  It started with mobile games and the whole, “Pay another 99 cents to unlock 30 minutes of gameplay.”  The worst of what I’ve heard is from Activision recently though.  The idea is that, through matchmaking, they will encourage you to buy in-game items.  Pairing players who have good gear they bought, with those who have not purchased items, in order to trigger purchases through envy.  Manipulating our need to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ so to speak.

Personally, I don’t think I own any games with pay-to-win schemes built in, but if I do I can say for certain I’ve never bought any of the items.  I have purchased some convenience items through the Guild Wars 2 store, but as stated above I don’t see that as an issue in this debate anyway.  I think the only way we’re going to change these practices is to stop feeding the beast.  The publishers certainly aren’t going to just stop offering to take our money if we keep giving it to them.  The whole thing is a mess but we gamers have the means to change it for the better if enough of us want to.

Am I Addicted To Video Games?

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I’ve been considering this question a lot over the past month, as I’ve been working on this article.  It started when Crymson posted an article(1) about reSTART, a rehab facility near Seattle that specializes in treating video game addiction.  The article profiled some of the patients, and I saw myself in them.  Guild Wars 2 is a huge part of my life.  I spend hours every day playing, just like the men in the article.  Do I belong in reSTART, too?

Addiction is a complicated disorder with many factors.  The traditional view of addiction is chemical: the brain releases pleasure-neurotransmitters based on a certain stimulus (usually a drug), then person performs the behavior again and again to initiate the pleasure response, while the brain releases less and less of the chemical each time.  The person has to perform the behavior, take the drug, at higher and higher doses to feel the same effect, and isn’t able to stop without experiencing withdrawal.

Newer theories of addiction look deeper.  Scientist Bruce K. Alexander believes that addiction is a social problem.  In a famous 1981 study(2), he looked at how rats’ addictive behaviors changed based on their environments.  Alexander et al found that rats housed in isolation became addicted to morphine easily, whereas rats housed in large enclosures filled with enrichment items and other rats did not.  He believes these findings can carry over to addiction patterns in humans.

The theory goes that people who have difficulty connecting with others socially may instead turn to drugs, ‘connecting’ to the drug when there is nothing else to connect with.  History seems to back up this theory: according to Alexander’s website, “Addiction can be rare in a society for many centuries, but can become nearly universal when circumstances change – for example, when a cohesive tribal culture is crushed or an advanced civilization collapses.”(3)  Maybe the cliche about having an ‘addictive personality’ has less to do with actual personality traits than it does the addiction-prone person’s social and economic circumstances.

Looking at addiction as a result of social isolation puts video game addiction in an interesting position, because many so-called ‘video game addicts’ play social games.  World of Warcraft is famously addicting, and the majority of the patients mentioned in the reSTART article were at the facility because they played WoW, or similarly massive multiplayer online games, so much that it interfered with their other activities and relationships.  Were those men addicted to the games themselves, or to the social connections they formed through those games?  If addiction is a social disorder, is it even possible to be addicted to social connection, regardless of the form it takes?

Dr. Hilarie Cash, reSTART’s co-founder and executive director, has a theory that social connections formed over the internet are lacking compared to in person interactions.  She claims that “limbic resonance,” a brain process related to the warm fuzzy feeling we get when we interact with people, doesn’t occur when the people who are interacting are not face to face.  “We have to be able to see and hear and touch and feel and smell each other for that release to occur,” she told an interviewer. “But what happens is that people seek to satisfy their social needs online.”(4)

I’m not convinced that this is true.  Some of the most important relationships in my life right now are with people I know through online gaming, whom I’ve never met face to face.  Interacting with them feels different from interacting with my “RL” friends, but I can think of plenty of times when I’ve had the warm, fuzzy feeling that Dr. Cash associates with limbic resonance while chatting over text or voice.  I have a different hypothesis for why gaming can become addicting in a way that in-person socialization doesn’t.

Laws against talking on cell-phones while driving have become commonplace.  When they were first being enacted, there was a lot of controversy.  “How is talking on a phone while driving different from talking to the person in the passenger seat?”  It turns out that there’s a big difference.  David Strayer, a leading researcher in the effects of cell-phone usage on driving ability, conducted a study comparing the two types of conversations.  The results revealed conversing with passengers to be much safer than cell-phone conversation.  According to Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times, “There is something uniquely distracting about talking on the phone when you’re behind the wheel; conversations with people inside the car are far less distracting to drivers. Unlike cell phone callers, chatty passengers instinctively stop talking when driving conditions change, and they offer an extra set of eyes to alert drivers to nearly-missed exits or erratic drivers.” (5)

I believe something similar is going on with MMO addiction.  We get the same feelings of connection, the same social benefits, from interacting with each other online and in person.  The difference is that, while our computer screens are windows into other people’s lives, they are narrow ones.  It’s easier to hid things from the people we know online: things like gaming may be negatively impacting our performance at work or our relationships with our families.  You can raid with someone every week, all the while never realizing that their life is spiraling out of control.  Instead of being an extra set of eyes in the passenger seat, we are the cell phone caller: oblivious to danger.  It’s no wonder that so many of our friends and guild-mates crash and burn.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  Over the past several weeks I’ve been working overtime to keep my guild running smoothly, ensure its stability, and maintain its growth.  It’s left me stressed-out, exhausted, and unhappy.  My in-game friends know me well enough to notice, and care enough about my well being to intervene.  In this ‘intervention,’ they insisted I take a break from raiding and offered to take over some of my duties as a guild officer.  It’s given me the chance to recharge and catch up on some RL duties I’d been neglecting (writing this article, for example).  I couldn’t be more grateful.  With American Thanksgiving approaching, the RWoG staff have been asked to submit a short statement about something (preferably gaming related) that we are thankful for, and this is mine: I am so, so thankful that these people, people whose faces I’ve never seen with my own eyes, are looking out for me.

So, am I addicted to playing video games?  I don’t think so, at least not in the classic sense.  And, thanks to the people in my life, both online and off, I don’t think I’m going to be.

If addiction is a social disease, then we, as social gamers, have the power to combat it.  One of my guild’s founding principles is game/life balance.  We have a flexible attendance policy and prioritize members’ wellness over progress and scores.  I hope other guilds will do the same.  If we can stop being ‘callers’ and become ‘passengers’ in each others lives, gaming addiction will never be able to take hold.

References:

  1. NPR staff  20 October 2013.  “When Playing Video Games Means Sitting Along Life’s Sidelines.”   http://www.npr.org/2013/10/20/238095806/when-playing-video-games-means-sitting-on-lifes-sidelines
  2. Alexander, Bruce K. et al 1981.  “Effects of Early and Later Colony Housing on Oral Ingestion of Morphine in Rats.”  Pharmacology Biochemistry & Behavior vol 15, pp 571-576 http://www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/rat-park/212-ratparkjournalarticle1981
  3. http://www.brucekalexander.com/
  4. Gravening, Jagger 2014.  “A Day at the First Video Game Rehab Clinic in the US.”  Motherboard, VICE.com http://motherboard.vice.com/read/a-day-at-the-first-video-game-rehab-clinic-in-the-us
  5. Parker-Pope, Tara 2008.  “Chatty Driving: Phones vs Passengers” NYTimes.com.  http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/01/chatty-driving-phones-vs-passengers/?_r=0

He said what? A male perspective on females in gaming

Women-in-GamingFirst of all I would like to thank Crymson Pleasure, and the Real Women of Gaming for the opportunity to give a male perspective on female gamers and females in gaming.  I know, that sounds strange, a male perspective.  I’ve seen arguments and debates end with a line similar to – you’re a man, what right do you have to comment on women’s issues.  I know that reaction is the extreme, but it does leave many of us standing outside the issue, not even wanting to engage, and I imagine some women feel the same way.  When you don’t agree, 100%, with the most vocal in any issue it’s easy to feel ostracized by their reaction.  However, out of respect for those same women gamers we support and love, I want to give my honest views, without the fears or PC coating.  With respect comes the realization that patronizing or condescending statements, or weak statements that commit to nothing at all, are neither honest nor respectful.

            How are female stereotypes in gaming having a positive or negative impact?  That’s tough because we first have to identify which are good or bad, but it’s unfair to do that without asking why they are there in the first place.  Stereotypes exist because someone, more likely many someones, existed that are just like that.  To tell a true and engaging story in a game you need to include ‘real’ people.  Is the trashy bimbo in the game because the story requires a trashy bimbo or because the creator wanted eye-candy?  Is she a negative stereotype, or an integral part of telling a realistic story because trashy bimbos really do exist.  Is it the creator’s responsibility to only present empowering images or is it also our responsibility as adults, parents, and gamers to teach each other and the younger generation to recognize the difference?  To me it’s a little bit of both.  You can’t have the positive without the negative.  You can’t explain why the strong, intelligent heroine is positive without the trashy, flaky eye-candy.  Hells, reverse the genders in that statement and how is it any different?  That’s part of story telling – the good and the bad, the dark and light, righteous and evil, right?  But, if the trashy bimbo is there because the marketing team wants more digitized breasts in the game then the image is completely unnecessary and we’ve delved into the realm of a harmful as well as negative stereotype that has no place in the art. Read the rest of this entry