Tobold's Blog
Saturday, July 20, 2013
The bigger picture of the problem

Earlier this month Gamasutra had a very long post about the ethics of Free2Play games, exploring the stories of individuals who spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars on those games and then had problems paying their rent. Funnily enough their first example was about a guy buying hats in Team Fortress 2, so much for the theory that this is a Pay2Win problem. They did mention that actually other business models like buy to play weren't necessarily any more ethical. But in my opinion they missed a major point of the problem, presumably because it is a truth that would endanger sites like Gamasutra themselves.

To explain what I mean, I'd like you to read some other news stories and compare them to the Gamasutra article. For example about the man who lost his live savings in a carnival game. It is easy to see that fundamentally this is the same story as somebody losing his savings in a Free2Play game. But it is obvious that the tone of the two stories is very different: Gamasutra basically blames the games, while the other story has an undertone of "look at that idiot" and blames the player. The reality, as so often, lies in the middle: The games, whether online or at the carnival, are definitely designed to get people to spend money. But most people are very well aware of that, and it takes an unusual amount of stupidity and lack of self-control to end up spending your life savings. Take ANYTHING one can possibly waste money on, and you'll find a similar story somewhere.

Even more important is a comparison with yet another news story, that of the Korean couple letting their baby starve to death while caring for virtual child. This isn't a story about money at all, it is about time. But the basic structure of the story again is the same: Players waste a limited resource (time or money) on a game, to the point where the lack of that resource for real life causes a real problem.

What is important to realize here is that albeit time and money are limited resources, we all tend to have some disposable income as well as some disposable time, to different degrees. We always "waste" a certain amount of our time and our money. And ultimately it doesn't matter on what hobby we spend that time and money, as long as it comes from the "disposable" pool. Where the real danger lies is spending either time or money you don't actually have available, because you would need it for something far more important in real life.

Many gamers are young, and feel the constraints of limited money more than those of limited time. So a story that a gamer spent $2,000 on a game creates attention, while everybody considers it normal that he also spent 2,000 hours of his time in that game. But objectively the 2,000 hours might well be worth more, even if the guy would just be flipping burgers. The fact that the gamer can't pay his rent due to the $2,000 spending makes it into a Gamasutra post, while nobody writes about the effect that 2,000 hours of playing games instead of working or studying has on the guy's future.

If we were to look at the ethics of online games, we would be better served by looking at both aspects, people spending too much money as well as people spending too much time. But a site like Gamasutra would never do that, because they are built on that false premise that "games are important". It is exactly that trap which I would consider unethical, developing games with an illusion that whatever you can reach in that game is something important worth spending much time and money on. That illusionary elevation of games to a status where some people consider them to be more important than many things in their real life is the real danger and ethical problem. And it is independent of the business model, because somebody falling for the illusion will spend whatever resource to get ahead in the game, even if he should spend that time and that money more wisely on something real.

For somebody who has a good grip of reality and who considers games to be just another form of entertainment, no game or business model poses much of a problem. But if we point a finger at the "ethics of Free2Play games" and say that they are dangerous for those who are less stable in real life, we need to consider people spending time unwisely as much as we need to consider people spending money unwisely. There are a lot of real-life problems somebody could solve for himself if he spent those thousands of hours and all that energy on solving his problems instead of chasing after the next dopamine high in a video game. Making this only about money is missing the bigger picture of the problem.

While it may be unethical, should it also be illegal? At which point (if any) should the designer/operator of the game have more liability than the person playing?
Very well written.

I hear this argument all the time in different context - usually gambling. It can be extended to any impulse control situation - from buying a car that you can't afford to cheating on your spouse.

People often blame the source of temptation rather than the one being tempted. Those who blame the temptation are assuming that people are irresponsible and out of control. It allows them to point a finger at the evil corporations that scheme to take advantage of the poor victims.

I don't have much sympathy for those who blow their rent money on games or any other "vice" but I also would support some mechanism to prevent it from happening a second time. Perhaps a self-imposed limit. What if a game developer let you set a spending cap, so that those who actually learn from their mistakes won't repeat them.
I think it depends on how addictive the games are. If they are as bad as gambling, then maybe something needs to be done. There have been a lot of studies on gambling, and there is proof that it makes the same change in the brain as an illegal drug to make certain people addicted. I don't think games are that bad, but maybe they are. I just hope more studies will be on video games, but balance ones where the people behind it are not out to make video games illegal.
Yes it is true that for all but a tiny percentage of players who play professionally, playing games is a complete and utter waste of money.

Not the cost of buying the game, not the subscription and not buying items from the cash shop. They are just drops in the ocean.

The mere act of playing is a waste of your money due to the opportunity cost of lost earnings.

But lets get real! That is stating the bleedin' obvious!!! One can legitimately argue that if you quite rightly allocate X hours to leisure (we work to live and not live to work, right?) then you already happily sacrificed those wages and so the only opportunity cost worth considering is the foregone pleasure that you could have derived from other activities.

So it is a bit of dumb point BUT it is one that becomes relevant when players whine about business models such as F2P (or declare bankrupt!).

The new helms in WoW, or rather their pricing, has caused a lot of controversy. In my country the cost amounts to what would be an hours pay in a not particularly well paid job. The complaints are therefore laughable when you consider the amount of time (aka money) players waste grinding for other cosmetic items.

The illusionary elevation of the importance of games was an excellent point. This one comes back to that vocal minority of players who populate the forums and blogs. They tend to be the ones suffering from that delusion, the silent majority haven't lost their perspective.

I call it a "delusion" as opposed to an "illusion" because I believe it is a player problem and not a developer/publisher problem.

If the delusion is perpetuated by anyone else then it would be the gaming media more so than the industry. I can forgive them on the grounds that they are only telling their readers and viewers what they want to hear for obvious reasons.

I am concerned about the RNG rewards used in MMORPG's though. Variable ratio random rewards are one of the most addictive reward systems. I gave up arguing for their removal long ago because the addicts will actually attack you and defend their vice.

A bit like when you see a guy beating up his girlfriend and when you intervene she starts hitting you.
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I am so sick of the "dopamine high" BS to declare something addictive. EVERYTHING that people enjoy (games, gambling, sports, exercise, food, television, sex, etc.) has been linked to elevated levels of dopamine.

I challenge anyone here to find a single thing that people enjoy that has specifically been shown to NOT result in elevated levels of dopamine.
I don't know if I'm a minority in this - I always find it extremely patronizing when anyone talks about how gamers can't control their spending or them evil F2P shops make everyone pay their rent out of their noses. in truth, the vast majority of gamers handle shops just fine. these wonderful media cases are outliers and exceptions. you find them for everything. exceptions don't make for fair or balanced judgement and they certainly don't make for good rules or regulations. if 99.9% of all people don't ruin their lives on cash shops, are cash shops still unethical? how far down must the number go until they are? and how is it unethical if I choose to spend money on something out of my own will (disposable income or not is irrelevant)?

anyway. I've focused a lot on F2P and gambling lately and the blogosphere has responded back and forth on this issue; these things are not as easily equated as some propagandists would like to.

but I do agree with you essentially that IF we must be hysterical and patronizing about spending money in games, we should also be hysterical and patronizing about time spent. ;) otherwise we have quite the double standard.
While I was in University I discovered the Internet and the MUD (prequel to MMORPG) on them. For six months I solely played, ignoring my studies and work. In the end I was able to stop playing and finish my studies.

Oddly enough, the time I spent in that game turned out to be one of my better career moves. Both the references from contacts I made in the game, as well as the coding abilities I developed writing expansions to the game worked towards the great job I now have.

I've never believed the dopamine thing either.

I suspect that something else is going on.

Firstly I think in some individuals there is some form of psychological disorder that leads to a compulsion or obsession. Possibly borderline or full on aspergers. Playing WoW and reading the official forums in particular has led me to believe that such conditions are rife and those individuals seem particularly attracted to gaming or perhaps the lifestyles that result from their conditions tend to nudge them towards it.

Secondly I think in other cases, particularly those related to MMORPG's, it comes down to gambling addiction. The variable ratio random rewards working in exactly the same way as a slot machine.

Now I am not an expert so I won't google it and then post on here pretending to be an expert, but I believe that gambling addiction works differently to "chasing a dopamine high"? I figure it is more complex although I wait to be corrected.
My opinion is that while there are exceptions, most of the people who complain about this really don't care about the f2p customers. They don't like f2p and this is just another way to complain about it.

People can spend $1800 in five years with two EVE accounts and I don't see people complaining about this. Or clothes or lottery tickets or wine or casino gambling or singles bars or any other discretionary spending. If you were to look at people who "lost their home/job" due to gambling, alcohol, lottery, drugs, casual or purchased sex and f2p games, what % of those would be due to f2p?

I guess the F2P option does have an added risk for some people, though. Consider someone who lives his or her life in WoW - they have problems, but at least the sub isn't one of them. If WoW were a whale-friendly F2P they could blow their life savings simultaneously with all the other issues.

I agree with foreveranoob that an optional spending cap (like on poker sites etc.) is the way to go.
Thandar, the thing is that gambling is incredibly BORING, at least to me. Slot machines are insanely boring. Somehow shoveling coins into a machine that is guaranteed to give you less money back over enough time is addictive to some people.

As far as money v. time goes, the repercussions of spending 2000 hours on a game, especially as a young person, is going to be felt for a lot longer than blowing $2000 bucks.

As far as the competing models go, as a practical matter goes I don't have a problem with sub games existing. I just want it to be acknowledged that the real reason that time whales love it is precisely because it disconnects their monetary commitment from their consumption of the game by spreading the overhead onto players who don't spend as much time. F2P reverses that.
The third option, which I would be fine with, would be a flat fee of $1 per hour of play time. For some reason that option is apparently not on the table. I suspect because it doesn't please any particular group, and such a clear and unambiguous pricing system means people have a harder time bullshitting themselves about how much time and money they are spending, which is of course a major downside for the game companies.
The other thing about a flat fee is that it says right there in big black letters: "Here is a good reason to stop playing right now".

Marketing folk probably get a bad feeling about that.
There's a good article out there as well that dicsusses this issue from the context of marketing F2P to exploit the still developing minds of children:

This particular article points out, I feel, that there may actually be at least one situation in which some F2P monetization strategies deliberately try to exploit minors.

As an aside, I wouldn't equate "loss of control" with "stupid." My ex-wife was not a dumb woman, but she did have a habitual lack of control when it came to gambling and damaging compulsive activity; one can be intelligent and still out of control, unfortunately. It's comforting but false to assume that one must be stupid to be self destructive.
Also...very much in agreement with you that there's a bad habit in our culture today to disregard the time sink cost to lives. I remember fifteen years ago when I played Final Fantasy VII, spent about 50 hours finishing it, and frankly felt very guilty to have spent so much time on a video game. Cut to today, and we have a culture where I've been mocked for being a causal carebear if I only sink 20 hours a week into WoW.

And it's really easy to find someone in some forum somewhere defending his 10+ hour a day gaming habit while claiming he still has plenty of time for family, work and sleep. We have a new culture these days which has divorced itself from reality almost entirely.
Well, Tori, I get what you're saying, buit only if the culture you mean is the culture of hardcore gamers.

Most people are well aware that spending 40 hours a week is not good.
People often blame the source of temptation rather than the one being tempted. Those who blame the temptation are assuming that people are irresponsible and out of control. It allows them to point a finger at the evil corporations that scheme to take advantage of the poor victims.

Well, compare to it something like alcohol. Most people are able to drink responsibly, but some people have greater or lesser tendencies towards becoming alcoholics. The causes of this are complicated and seem to be partly genetic. It's not a simple matter of alcoholics being "weak-willed" or "morally inferior".

So if an alcoholic manages to drink himself to death, it seems cruel to point the finger of blame and say, "The world is better off without him! We mustn't let the wicked, sinful drunks tempt us into putting any restrictions at all on the poor, persecuted corporations!"

A total ban on alcohol wouldn't work and would be overkill anyway, but some minor regulations do make sense. So you can't target alcohol advertisements at children, or serve drinks to people who are dangerously intoxicated, and you have to clearly label the alcohol content of different products, so that people don't accidentally drink more than they intend to.

F2P games aren't addictive the same way that alcohol is, but I think society might benefit from considering similar sorts of regulation to get rid of the worst abuses.
Games offer time limits under parental controls. Surely a responsible company shouldn't also provide the option to limit the amount you can pay for items in a set period?
But then you would also have to limit the amount somebody can spend on anything else, like cars, houses, or collectbles. Don't think this idea is possible outside of China.
The adult would turn that off when they wanted to.

It reminds me of gambling in America. They have gambling hotlines and ads about gambling addiction.

The easy solution of not letting people lose more than $300 a month at any legal casino is not, of course, on the table. But they care, they really do.
I do not concede that time equals money when it comes to playing games. I'm a salaried professional who has reached the upward rung on the mobility ladder for my profession, and I am not required to work overtime. I dont believe for one second that playing WoW for 3 hours somehow magically equates to me having lost 3 hours of "possible" wages. MY work time and my income have nothing to do with me spending a few hours of my "free time" pursuing a hobby that I enjoy. Yes, there are unbalanced people on both sides of the spectrum, where too much money or too much time is spent in pursuit of such hobbies, and it is erroneous to contend that gamers should not be allowed to spend either time, money or both on their favorite hobby.

The problem I have with the F2P model is the systemic progression towards manipulation that is occuring in game design under this payment model, and it is being well studied and documented on sites like Gamasutra.

My other contention with the F2P model, is that in the beginning and even now, proponents of the F2P model hailed it as a new revenue model that would herald in a new era of game design and give non-AAA titles a chance to succeed. They also contended that it would "even the playing field" between the time rich and the money rich. The reality, and studies are showing this to be true, is that gamers who spend money on F2P games are also spending just as much "time" playing these games as their subscription based counterparts spend playing their games. So according to Tobold's logic, players of F2P games who spend $2000 on a game, who also happens to spend more than 20 hours a week playing that game....must be royally F&*^ed If a guy walks into a casino with a bucket full of quarters and spends 10 hours playing a slot game that is designed to pay out in the house's favor, only to walk away 10 hours later with an empty bucket...what has he lost? Did he get enjoyment in return for his lost wages(/hat trick) and time? Does it matter?

Does it matter that the slot game in question can be directly and accurately related to how a growing majority of F2P games are being designed with deceptive manipulation practices? I'm in the camp that think it does matter.
I dont believe for one second that playing WoW for 3 hours somehow magically equates to me having lost 3 hours of "possible" wages.

I explained that, read my post! Your 3 hours in the evening are part of your disposable time, not part of your "core" time you would need for job and family. But that is still the same as money, because I bet you also have disposable income, so if you spent $3 on an item in the item shop, you also wouldn't really miss them.

The danger is people spending time or money they need for something else, having gotten their priorities wrong.
"But then you would also have to limit the amount somebody can spend on anything else, like cars, houses, or collectbles. Don't think this idea is possible outside of China."

Its not the same at all. If you study economics there is a law of offer and demand. Some products are not affected by this law, for example smoke and gas...if you raise the price on smoke and gas the demand will not drop or the drop will be minimal comparing in you increase price on chocolate for example.

In the same way, some activities/products are much more ethistic than others. There is a reason that gambling is illegal in many countries and you need to be over 21 to enter to a casino.

F2p games that directly sell stuff on their shop is ok, but there are lot of F2P games that offer gambling on their shop..think swtor packs. You get the pack and you have a chance to get some items. Some of them are awesome and you can sell them for many gold in-game while others have became "junk". Other games have chests drop for you and you need to buy a key to open the chest and see what is inside..

Now this is very different than buy a nice outfit from the shop, or buy character slots. It is more ethistics and may drive people spend lot of money, like the would in any gambling activity. And since lot of children play these games, I think there is a problem here that is sure unethical but I don't know if someone can prove it to be illegal...
If certain Free2Play items are gambling, then they would have to be legally prohibited. The spending limit option would still be unfeasible, gambling is either legal or not, I don't know of any legislation where gambling is legal up to a certain spending limit.
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