Games and Manipulation: The Problem of “Value”

Words: 2617 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

I mentioned a while back that I started playing Destiny 2 again. I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the experience that I intend to share, but one thing that has definitely bothered me is observing the monetization of the game. This is not something unique to Bungie’s tactics for this game. The tactics being employed are pretty much universal for games like Destiny.

But it is these kinds of tactics that I think are worth examining. Because as games move more and more towards the setup of “games as a service,” we’re going to be continually inundated with the pressures placed upon us, pressures that we may not even be aware of initially.

You might be familiar with some of the more egregious forms of monetization. The infamous original case was horse armor in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. The most recent examples relate to the implementation of NFTs into video games. But there are plenty of other examples of this aggressive monetization that have erupted in public outcry. Loot boxes, pay-to-win mechanics, and so on. These all fit into a similar set of basic tactics for companies to make money from players.

This subject is incredibly complex, however. There are a lot of topics for us to cover, and there’s not exactly any single “correct” pathway for navigating these tactics.

So I wanted to engage in an investigation of “games as a service” writ large with a multi-part essay. The idea will be to look at individual elements of how we relate to money and games, and how those things can be manipulated.

The purpose of this first essay, then, is going to be looking at the meaning of “value.” We are being sold these games and the content within them, and all of those things have particular prices attached. What is the “value” of that content, though? What is going on in our heads when we buy something, or are thinking about buying something?

We want to look into the psychology of value because it impacts how we process the basic information of “should I buy this or not?” That is the fundamental question any consumer is going to be asking themselves, and in any service-based video game that question is going to come up a lot. Because there are so many things available to be bought.

The Psychology of Value

So let’s start real quickly with the basic economic meaning of “value.”

We often use the term “value” to refer to an object as though the value is innate – a thing has a value of $10. It’s very common to see things from that standpoint because prices are essentially given to us.

But the point of price – and value more generally – is that it’s just something that is effectively agreed upon. Someone is making a product and sells it for a certain price – let’s say $100. That product has a value of $100 as long as there is someone willing to pay that price for the product. Put another way, the value of the product is $100 for that consumer.

Now it might be a bad idea to set the price at $100, because most people won’t pay that much for it. Or maybe it’s a bad idea because you could set a much higher price and still find plenty of customers.

The point here is that the value of a product depends on what people are willing to pay. That’s all a price – and value – means within an economic context.

Now let’s switch over to a normative or moral context. Because we also associate the “value” of something with a sense of justice or fairness.

Imagine that somebody is selling a product that is very cheap to make. Let’s say it costs five cents to make one of these products. Moreover, this is a product that is popular – everyone wants this product, or maybe even needs this product in some way. So this person has a nice market to sell to.

What price should the product be sold at?

We’re dealing with a very simplified example here. In a normal market system, you’d have competition, which would affect this question drastically. But we’re ignoring that aspect for the moment.

Imagine that the person wants to sell the product for $20 apiece. As noted, the product only costs five cents to make, so the difference between how much is being spent to make the product and how much is needed to buy the product is astronomical.

In seeing such a stark difference, many people would look at such a difference as inherently unfair. The price does not reflect the “value” of the object – it is overpriced. Of course, from an economic perspective, that statement is meaningless. But from a moral perspective, we would likely perceive this pricing as an attempt to take advantage of customers – people might be required to pay this much, or even willing to pay this much, but they shouldn’t have to.

That is what I mean by the moral component of pricing and value.

Is This Worth It?

So now let’s shift to the psychological meaning of “value.”

One of the things that makes this all difficult, of course, is that value is subjective. What you and I think something is going to be “worth” are different.

But even with that subjectivity in place, there are some things that we know about how we process the value of a product.

For one, we are bad at making decisions once we’ve already spent money. All sorts of people are liable to succumb to the “sunk cost fallacy” – the idea that if you’ve already spent money on something, you might as well make use of it because otherwise that money is wasted. But sunk costs are referred to as fallacious because the behavior is often irrational: we will do things that make us miserable or force us to spend even more money because we think we have nothing to lose.

Consider the following experiment as an example (from Arkes and Blumer 1985): You’ve scheduled a ski trip to Michigan, and the price of the trip is $100. Later on, you decide to schedule another ski trip to Wisconsin, which costs just $50. But then it turns out that you accidentally scheduled both trips for the same time! You’re pretty sure that you’ll like the Wisconsin trip more. But at this point you can’t get a refund on either ticket, nor will you be able to sell either to someone else. Which trip do you go on?

The results of asking this question? Most people choose to go on the more expensive trip, even though it is established in the question that you think you’ll have less fun. Why? Because you’ve already spent $100 on it, so you may as well get your money’s worth.

Moreover, we’re pretty bad at valuing money when it exists as anything other than cash, and even then we can still mess up. But let’s start first with paying for stuff in general. Studies have found that people tend to place less “value” on their money when they are paying with some non-cash currency – such as a credit card – than with cash itself. The idea is that there is a “pain” to paying with cash that we don’t feel otherwise: we don’t think as carefully about what we’re spending.

This lack of pain also impacts our spending habits. People are more likely to impulse buy and spend money on things that are unhealthy – things they would otherwise avoid – when they no longer have to associate those unhealthy things with the pain of paying. And this effect holds even when you switch out the cash for an equivalent: if you’re using some kind of stored-value currency – “scrip” or what many players may be familiar with today as in-game currencies – then you’re likely to spend that currency more freely than its literal cash equivalent.

And we’re bad at thinking about the value of something once money is “spent.” This goes back to the sunk cost issue. If you buy something – a movie ticket, for example – and then lose the ticket, you’re more likely to repurchase the ticket because you’re already “out” the money you paid the first time. But if you haven’t purchased the ticket yet and just lose the cash, you’re less likely to buy a ticket, even though the loss is the exact same. The value of your money isn’t really based on money itself. It’s based around a whole host of related concepts about what is “yours” – your time, what you think you stand to lose, and so on. And all of these concepts are subject to a host of biases that can cause us to effectively misvalue things.

So how does this all relate to video games?

Well, is a given purchase of a game “worth” the money you spent for it? Or on a particular cosmetic item? Or for a DLC? Or a season pass?

Perhaps the intuitive answer is “sure, I had fun with X game, so obviously it was worth it.” But now we need to disentangle that intuition with what we know about how we value things: did we actually enjoy the game, or are we effectively fooling ourselves because we’ve already spent the money on it, so we feel we have to enjoy it?

This becomes a bigger problem when we then think about the things that we often demand in games. We want more game – bigger games, longer games, huge worlds, multiple quests – to fill in for the cost we’ve paid. But what is the actual value of that content? I posed this question in a previous essay: is 100 hours of mediocre content worth the same price as 10 hours of really good content? What would it really mean to try to value a game based on how much we enjoyed it, and how long those different forms of enjoyment lasted?

But relevant to the present topic is how video game companies are engaging in tactics specifically to make you – the consumer – spend more. Not just spend more in the abstract, but specifically to spend more than you otherwise might. If you buy a season pass, then as new content comes out it feels “free” and you don’t worry about the cost, in a way that you would worry if you paid for each item individually.

Or think again about sunk costs: if you’ve bought an online game that you’re enjoying, surely you’re going to pay for the next expansion or season. That makes sense. But as you go on, is each season actually something you want to buy? Or are you buying it because at this point you’ve spent so much time and money on the game that you basically have to buy the next season?

I highlight all of these problems not to say: “Stop paying for this stuff, it’s all worthless and you actually hate it!”

Instead, it’s about stepping back and thinking about how we spend money, how we relate to the content we’re purchases, and trying to ask ourselves to what extent we really do think it’s worth it.

And part and parcel of that process is realizing the biases that we suffer from. Coming up with serious answers to these questions is hard, and I can’t offer a solution. There probably isn’t one, in fact. It requires each of us to search deep and reflect upon our own perceptions – something which I’ve noted many times is so difficult as to be nearly impossible.

But two things come from these facts. Firstly, we should be really afraid of how easily we can be manipulated, both by others and by our own minds. Secondly, it’s worth it to try and fight back against this manipulation as much as we can.

Concluding Remarks

“Value” is a tricky subject to discuss. Because I cannot get inside your head to know what you really think about something. Are you really enjoying a game? It’s hard for me to know that. Only in a few cases could someone else be able to say that you actually don’t like something you claim to love, or vice versa.

So when we step back and ask ourselves “do I really like this game?”, the answer is probably going to end up being, “I don’t really know, but I suppose I do.” And that may well be where we stand on the subject.

In the next essay I’ll be looking more at the economics of video games themselves: how much they cost to make, versus how much they cost to buy, versus the individual value of each game, and so on. Since we so often hear the complaint about how much games cost, it’s useful to have these broader concepts of “value” in mind as we’re discussing that subject. But these concepts of value will become more important later on when we start discussing things like microtransactions and the nature of manipulation more directly

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