Last updated November 6, 2018 at 8:32 am
Online options blur the boundaries.
Purchasing opportunities in online games are often a form of “predatory monetisation” that resembles gambling and may pose a similar financial risk for the vulnerable, according to researchers at the University of Adelaide.
Dr Daniel King and Professor Paul Delfabbro argue that games that include the option of paying small fees (microtransactions) to access additional features or content can become a form of psychological entrapment, with players spending an escalating amount of money because they feel they have invested too much to quit.
Their comments, published in the journal Addiction, follow the World Health Organization’s recent announcement that it plans to include “gaming disorder” in the International Classification of Diseases.
“These schemes may entice some players to spend more money than they may have intended or can afford, especially when using credit cards or virtual currency that makes it hard to keep track of spending,” said King, a Senior Research Associate in the School of Psychology.
‘Loot box’ banned in Belgium
He and Delfabbro have focused in particular on the “loot box”, a reward system that entices players to repeatedly buy a random selection of virtual items. It was recently classed as an illegal form of gambling in Belgium and has been the subject of regulatory attention across many jurisdictions.
“Players hoping to win a particular item may end up repeatedly buying loot boxes at significant personal expense,” King said. “Because loot boxes require no player skill and have a randomly determined outcome or prize, they function similarly to scratch tickets or gambling slot machines.”
Delfabbro notes that some leading game publishers have registered patents for microtransaction systems that incentivise the player to spend money, but there are few regulations or consumer protections associated with these systems.
“I think most experienced gamers will agree: gaming should really be about skilful play, not gambling,” he said.
His thoughts are supported by Dr Dan Golding, a Lecturer in Media and Communications at Swinburne University of Technology, who suggests that the most substantial threat to the video games industry has been “hidden in plain sight” for a number of years.
“Progressively, the video games and gambling industries have begun to overlap,” he said.
“A few years ago, so-called social video game companies that pioneered video games on platforms like Facebook and Apple’s App Store turned to the language of gambling, both explicitly through slot machine apps and tacitly by building in small opportunities to pay a little money in-game. Perhaps your favourite word-game puzzle would give you a hint for a dollar, for instance.
Video game industry catches profit bug
Golding believes these strategies fueled big profits for companies working at the intersection of video games and gambling, and the wider video games industry took notice. In mainstream video gaming, the result is the loot box.
“This is a frankly pernicious design strategy that gives players the opportunity to purchase the chance of winning desirable in-game items. Now, you pay your dollar for the chance of getting that impossibly good power-up – but you might also just end up with an item that everyone who plays the game has.
“This presents a unique challenge for regulators and classification systems hardly set up to be responsive to cutting-edge video game design – but more pressingly, it represents a huge challenge for the videogame industry.
“How deeply will video game companies allow themselves to become implicated in gambling? This is a more significant and pressing challenge than anyone so far realises.”