black game console on wooden surface

Paying to Play the Game

China has moved to restrict certain monetisation and engagement tactics from video games, but what does this really mean? Let us use an analogy – if a child were to be given a magic box that accepts $5 bills and they get to spin a wheel, delivering whatever toy the wheel lands on – how many parents would willingly put this in their home?

Furthermore, if the wheel were to have a minuscule chance of giving out any particular toy the child genuinely desires, with the rest of the prizes made up of undesirable clutter, how many parents would then be interested? Sounds like a slot machine and a quick way to lose money, doesn’t it?

Video games have had free reign to essentially entice children into using slot machines since the rise of smartphones in the early 2010s. The digital equivalent of the toy-producing box is referred to as a loot box. One can get cosmetic items inside the game as well as new game mechanics or characters that are locked behind this loot box system where, as aforementioned, the truly desirable items have a small chance of dropping.

No gambling terms are used!

One puts money into the game to acquire these loot boxes, with some games also charging for the key to open them. These purchases are known as microtransactions, and the most common practice is to have an in-game currency, known as premium currency, that may only be bought with real money. One pays to open loot boxes using this premium currency, usually with an idea of what they are looking for. Thus, the proverbial wool is successfully pulled over the eyes of children. No gambling terms are used. The real money has a degree of separation from the premium currency whereby the purchaser feels that they are getting their money’s worth before gambling it. Think casino tokens that also work at the casino bar and restaurants, but fundamentally, loot boxes function as a slot machine with extra steps, albeit one that never pays any money back.

You may be wondering how it could take ten years or more for governments to step in, but the real problem is the lack of interest parents show in the entertainment consumed by their children and the ground-up effect this has on general ignorance.

The fact is that most politicians are older and can barely use a smartphone, and they are unlikely to have discovered this without a public push, much like what was needed to tone down data gathering by big companies.

Simply more concerned adults

In China, however, phone games are played by a much wider demographic, which will likely take the West another 10 to 20 years to see, and there are simply more concerned adults who were aware of these business practices. So, what are these practices? Firstly, the loot boxes. These will no longer be available to minors and games that still include them for adult players must now have a direct purchasing option for the few items anybody actually wants.

Secondly, daily login rewards will be prohibited; this is the practice of giving out rewards to players for simply logging into the game. This sounds innocent at first but in practice, this takes advantage of FOMO (fear of missing out) psychology as, once more, the rewards that are actually desirable are – more often than not – locked behind consecutive login rewards with some games requiring weeks or even months of consecutive logins to claim these rewards.

Non-consecutive rewards that track cumulative daily logins can stretch into multi-year requirements, dishing out rewards at the 100- and 1 000-day marks. This is strong enough to suck in adults as the premise seems innocent but results in much higher play times than would otherwise be achieved by the inherent allure of gameplay mechanics as opposed to the allure of loot and free rewards.

The sunk cost fallacy

The third and final practice is spending incentives for new players and veterans alike. When new players begin games that have microtransactions, they are enticed to spend money with timed offers that are only available to new accounts. The player is made to think something like: “Maybe I should just buy this now while I still can, as it is such a good offer compared to the regular pricing.” Enter the sunk cost fallacy – once money has been spent, the player is more likely to keep playing; this leads into the second half of this practice, which comes in the form of incentives for repeated and large spenders. Many games offer bulk purchasing on their premium currency and will even offer exclusive rewards that may only be achieved by spending large quantities of money in one instance, and players frequently justify these large sums as a result of these incentives.

Imagine paying to do fewer chores…in a video game

Repeated spending incentives come in the form of timed sales and single-use items, usually a temporary boost to some aspect of the game that removes tedium. Imagine that – paying to do fewer chores in a video game. Eventually, a player has spent too much money in a game to stop playing it, even if this almost sounds dystopian at this point. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen what particular changes will be made to bulk and repeated spending incentives.

Finally, why is it so important that this change was made in China? The answer is simple – the Chinese consumer base spends enough money on these microtransactions to see a knock-on effect on the industry at large. The Chinese have the spending power to force change in the multitude of Western companies that have popular games in China, which will, in turn, change the way Western companies, in general, make games as players will choose to spend more of their time and money in games that feel less predatory.

Seized with the psychology of gaming. From Melkbosstrand, Cape Town

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