Video games provide endless hours of fun for people of all ages, races, and genders. Gamers may not realize, however, that certain elements of their favorite form of entertainment may pose a serious threat to their wallets—and even their mental health. Game developers employ various techniques to manipulate users into purchasing items in the in-game store, including lockouts, reward removal, and loot boxes; considering virtue ethics and computer scientists’ ethical code emphasizes the need to remedy this exploitation.
It’s no secret that the video game industry is profitable: one popular Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) game, Fortnite, raked in 1.2 billion dollars of revenue within less than a year of its July 2017 launch . Candy Crush Saga, a prominent mobile game, earned 945 million in one year at the height of its fame . These games are actually free of charge to download and instead make their profit via in-game purchases (commonly referred to as “microtransactions”). The results of these microtransactions can range from outfit or weapons modifications to more functional elements like larger inventories or access to higher levels .
Games nowadays shy away from outright forcing players to make purchases to continue progression in the game, instead making it merely frustrating—but not impossible—to never use the in-game store. When examining both addictive gameplay and the exploitative nature of in-game purchases, however, the toll on gamers’ wellbeing becomes clear. Game designers therefore have a responsibility to implement preventative measures, ensuring that their desire to make a profit does not inflict harm on users.
Candy Crush: Designing Addicting Games
Beginning in 2012, the entertainment company King developed a mobile game that rendered the world helpless against colorful images of candies. Candy Crush had a fairly simple objective—match candies together in rows within a time limit and in fewer than a set number of swaps—yet managed to ensnare millions . The game’s secret: its developers constructed the basis of the game itself to be addicting. Its theme is one reminiscent of childhood; the “chocolate river,” “swimming pool full of gumdrops,” or even brightly colored jelly bean- and hard candy-shaped game pieces evoke the affectionate feelings many have towards sweets . The actual gameplay itself is very simple as well, for it consists of a handful of swipes. Most importantly, however, it implements the “near-miss” phenomenon that slot machines rely on. Candy Crush is designed to ramp up in difficulty as the player progresses, but not so much that they become frustrated to the point of quitting—just enough to feel the agony of almost meeting the objective. The game then highlights when players have reached this state, displaying messages like “Out of moves! You only needed 2 more jellies” . Studies have found that situations in which a player nearly misses the goal result in an increased heart rate, increased frustration, and increased motivation to continue playing compared to times when the player experiences a loss .
Candy Crush’s emphasis on the player reaching a near-miss highlights developers’ intention to aggravate the frustration they experience as well as encourage dependence on the game. Its implementation of a feature that locks the player out if they surpass a certain number of attempts may seem like a preventative measure against addiction, but likely only serves as an additional money-making strategy—the user can remove this barrier for a small fee, of course . Deliberately designing a game to be addictive is therefore unethical in multiple ways, the first of which being that the developers of the game intend to make the game addictive. Not only have they designed their creation so that the user develops an unhealthy dependence, but they also enable their company to profit from users’ potential addictions by drawing money out of them if they feel they cannot wait for the lockout period to end. Secondly, the developers also openly violate the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) Code of Ethics’ second principle: do no harm; video game addiction has been shown to have detrimental effects such as “increased stress,” “decreased academic achievement,” problems sleeping, and, in extreme cases, hallucinations . While not every Candy Crush player will become addicted to the game, those who do will face these harmful consequences; developers therefore must take steps to protect the latter group.
Microtransactions and Mind Games
Beyond gearing the whole game towards ensnaring players, game developers implement more subtle money-making tactics as well. These tactics are akin to a stranger in a suspicious-looking van offering candy: the companies offer shiny, attractive rewards in order to entice the user into spending their money. One common ploy is the use of virtual currency, in which players must use their real money to purchase lump sums of virtual currency that can then be used to acquire items in the in-game shop . The vast majority of game currencies have a higher numerical value than the real-world counterpart, which may mislead the player; while they can see the conversion rate, the large difference masks the true financial weight of each purchase. The popular MMO game League of Legends (LoL) utilizes a currency called Riot Points (RP); the cheapest bundle, 650 RP, costs $5, and the most expensive, 13,000 RP, costs $100. Game companies also lure players into buying higher priced bundles by implementing bonuses proportional to the price, making more expensive bundles seem like a bargain . LoL begins offering bonus RP at the $10 level, an extra 200 RP added to the 1,300 that the bundle already includes, and grants up to a maximum of 2,000 bonus RP. Virtual currency does not explicitly lie about how much real money players spend, but it does add a nonessential extra conversion step that indicates intent to deceive in order to make a profit. This feature therefore strays into potential unethicality when utilizing agent-based virtue ethics, where ethicality of a given action is determined by the good or bad intentions behind said action.
Video games sometimes employ a more psychologically manipulative strategy called reward removal to motivate players to spend money, although the implementation varies more widely from game to game. The mobile game Puzzle and Dragons, for example, requires players to match sets of 3 or more gems of the same color; over the course of each level, the player receives a certain number of “dragon eggs” as rewards. The catch: the player can only carry so many eggs within their inventory, and all eggs that exceed this capacity are taken away . Herein lies the concept of reward removal, as the game promises a certain number of eggs but ultimately takes away some of those earnings that the player worked so hard to earn—only allowing them to keep more eggs if they pay a fee. By offering players the experience of basking in greater spoils before returning to a less wealthy state, game developers instill an unnecessary sense of unhappiness in players that motivates them to spend money. The game could very well stop updating the eggs the player earns once they hit the maximum instead. This inventory limitation is also highly artificial, as the game doesn’t physically store dragon eggs within the mobile device and could therefore “hold” an infinite number of eggs. In this way, the implementation of reward removal in Puzzle and Dragons clearly indicates the game developers’ desire to manipulate users solely for profit, rendering the act unethical in the view of agent-based virtue ethics. Reward removal also harms video game players, as doing such financial and psychological harm violates players’ wellbeing.
When Gaming Becomes Gambling
Another dangerous feature in many video games is the loot box, which consists of a random assortment of the aforementioned virtual items such as “skins” (avatar outfit variations), user icons, or power-ups. These items do not actually have any monetary value, nor can they be resold; moreover, the player does not actually own these items, for they can be revoked or erased from the user’s account under extreme circumstances . Loot boxes remain ever-popular despite these drawbacks, however, and total revenue from loot box purchases alone has been estimated to total nearly $30 billion over the course of 2018 . Loot boxes can be particularly dangerous due to the low probability that a box contains a given item—players must therefore purchase an “indeterminate amount” of boxes in order to obtain a specific item they desire . Because the outcome of loot boxes is totally independent of player skill and based on complete chance, utilizing these features resembles gambling; just as one pays to spin a slot machine in hopes of the unlikely event of landing three like symbols, one similarly can pay for a loot box in hopes of getting a certain outfit for their avatar. One study conducted in 2018 found that problem gambling is strongly linked to purchasing loot boxes; the more intense gambling addiction a given subject had, the more often they purchased loot boxes in video games . The Belgian and Dutch governments have even gone so far as to ban loot boxes from video games on the basis that the items violate the countries’ anti-gambling legislation .
Game developers therefore exhibit suspicious intention in their implementation of loot boxes. Of course, some companies in the gaming industry maintain that they intend loot boxes to be a “surprise and delight” developed to make games more enjoyable . Game companies would not state outright their intentions to attract potential gambling addicts even if they did harbor said motivations, though; in this way, it is important to examine the dangers of gambling that may be associated with loot boxes. First and foremost, gambling takes a toll on the gambler’s finances: the US gambling industry was valued at nearly $54 billion in 2008 . Its behavioral consequences are even more severe, as pathological gambling has been linked to increased impulsivity and “impaired” decision-making; essentially, participating in gambling may increase tendencies that would cause one to gamble again, repeatedly . Lastly, gambling addiction can potentially increase risk for obsessive-compulsive disorder, paranoia, depression, and anxiety . According to the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, all programmers must “contribute to… human wellbeing” and “avoid harm”; game developers must therefore be careful to avoid creating games that resemble gambling too closely . Given that gambling can cause so many financial, behavioral, and psychological problems, implementing features in games that resemble gambling therefore violates the code of ACM.
Merriam-Webster defines a game as an activity that one “[engages] in for fun or amusement”; it would therefore be reasonable to assume video games should give their users joy . In turn, causing gamers mental and financial harm—by way of addiction, overspending, and psychological manipulation—seems to be the antithesis of this purpose. Creating a game that people become addicted to or that manipulates people into spending money does not inherently instigate an ethical dilemma; however, intentionality introduces a new perspective on the issue. Merely introducing in-game store items may just be a game company’s method of staying afloat in our capitalist economy—and if a few users spend a good amount of money on the game, that is the result of their individual will. If a game developer were to add a loot box system intending to take advantage of the feature’s strong correlation to gambling, however, they would put forth the effort to actively manipulate users and thus make playing the game that much more dangerous. Gamers outside the minority group that would overinvest in a game regardless of developers’ actions are therefore at risk as well, incurring an increased urgency for developers to actively avoid any intention to knowingly deceive gamers.
By Tyler Amano-Smerling, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
About the Author
At the time of writing this paper, Tyler was a sophomore majoring in Computer Science: Games at USC. Her favorite video games include Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and League of Legends.
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