Alex Hern Opinion
In a tale of gambling addiction posted to Reddit shortly before Christmas, the numbers were as shocking as they were unsurprising. First the anonymous addict frittered away $200 (£149), in November 2016. Then $700 more, later that month. Then $300, $400, $1,500 … eventually, by December 2017, a credit card debt of $16,000, too large to be kept a secret any longer. It’s a painful narrative, one that’s not softened through repeated telling.
What might be more surprising is the particular type of gambling under discussion. This man hadn’t lost his money betting on football, or feeding notes into a fixed-odds betting terminal. He had been playing the mobile video game Final Fantasy: Brave Exodus (FFBE), a free-to-play game for android and iOS based on the Final Fantasy series.
Like all the best pushers, of course, these games are happy to give you the first hits for free
It’s one of a number of games which use a similar system to reel in, and profit from, players. Unlockables – be they new characters in FFBE, new players in the Fifa football sims, weapon upgrades in the new Star Wars game Battlefront II, or car parts in racing game Need For Speed – aren’t available for direct sale. Instead players buy, with real money or in-game currency, a random item or set of items, in what are termed “loot boxes”. Players have no guarantee of what they’ll get, and no way to guide the game into giving them something they need or want.
The system is a sort of weaponised behavioural psychology, perfectly pitched to exploit all the cognitive weaknesses that make people so susceptible to addiction and compulsion. They pull all the standard strings of problem gambling: the desire for one more go, the misplaced belief that an unlucky streak must come to an end, the hope that continuing to bet will reverse the losses already incurred.
But they also mix with all the worst aspects of virtual cash-grabs. The involvement of in-game currencies, for instance, serves to hide the true cost of each lucky dip; if I tell you 11 pulls of FFBE’s virtual slot machine – the minimum required to guarantee one of the game’s rarest four- or five-star characters – costs 5,000 “lapis”, you may shrug. If I tell you that a £20 purchase gets you just 3,200, you start to realise the amount of cash at stake here.
Like all the best pushers, of course, these games are happy to give you the first hits for free. Simply finishing the FFBE tutorial gets you 500 lapis, for instance, and your first month with the game will see you showered with the currency. But eventually, the spigot is turned off, leaving you with a measly 100 a day which you can unlock through hours of play. It’s then that people consider reaching for their wallet.
ncredibly, the practice isn’t considered gambling in most jurisdictions, leaving few regulations over where and how it can be implemented. The rationale is that players are guaranteed to receive something for each pull of the virtual slot machine, and those items have no real monetary value, so it isn’t really gambling at all – it’s just play, and anyone can do that.
That’s how you end up with stories like the ones I heard from Dave, a primary school teacher from Limerick, Ireland: primary school-age children spending over €500 (£443) on card packs in Fifa Ultimate Team, an amount that can cause serious problems for whichever parent has unexpectedly found their debit card charged. “Usually it’s not found out until the parent’s next credit card bill.”
More worrying for him, though, are the regular buyers: children who spend €20 a week on new player packs. “There’s concern about the long-term habits of spending on a chance to gain an item.” Kids have all the typical responses that adults have to gambling in these transactions, (anger, disappointment, the urge to spend again to have another roll of the dice), without any of the impulse control and awareness that most adults have.
“Developers may argue about their legal definition as gambling, but the ‘boots on the ground’ view shows that there is very little difference to children and the behaviours it promotes in them. There is a concern that it may impact them negatively in later life by normalising gambling and its features at so young an age.”
There is at least progress on this front. Labour MP Daniel Zeichner raised the issue in the UK parliament, asking pointed questions of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and noting that in the Isle of Man “in-game gambling” is expressly covered by the crown dependency’s regulations. Belgium’s gambling commission has launched its own investigation, while Hawaii has also vowed to crack down on “predatory” practices like loot boxes.
But perhaps the biggest success has come from within gaming itself, with the failure of EA’s Star Wars game Battlefront II. One of the year’s biggest releases, it was hobbled with a progression system designed top-to-bottom to extract as much money from the player as possible – and fans could tell. The backlash was so great that eventually, EA pulled the purchasing system entirely. Now, critics say, the game is simply bad and dull, rather than bad, dull and exploitative.
It may not be a shining beacon of hope, but the fight can be won. And until it is, there will be more stories of heartbreak and ruin to lay at the feet of these systems. So keep an eye on that video game your child unwrapped this Christmas.
- Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian
Source: The Guardian