Games and Manipulation: Monetization and Ethics

Words: 5114 Approximate Reading Time: 35-45 minutes

This is Part 3 of a three part essay. Click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

In closing out this series of essays on money and manipulation within the video games industry, I wanted to focus on the manipulation itself. Because while I’m throwing that word out, it needs to be explained. What is manipulation? And what are the practices that are supposed to be manipulative, and what makes them manipulative?

So what we’ll be focusing on in this essay is microtransactions. Most players should be familiar with microtransactions at this point. They are some kind of in-game purchase, whether it be for a cosmetic item, or playable content, or equipment, or experience and levels, etc. Microtransactions exist in many games nowadays, but are pushed most aggressively within games-as-a-service games.

This form of monetization, as I described in the previous essay, makes sense from a business perspective. Obviously, they are ways to make more money, which is what developers and publishers want to do – whether as their primary motivation or simply a motivation. But just as important, as described in the last essay, is how they effect revenue streams and provide stability. For a publisher, this may not matter as much, but for a developer – let’s think about Bungie and its monetization of Destiny 2 – this kind of consistent revenue stream is incredibly valuable for keeping the company afloat from year to year.

But even if we acknowledge that there’s a (potentially) good reason behind the shift towards microtransactions, we don’t have to regard the use of microtransactions as good, or even as ultimately ethical.

I’ll be drawing from a handful of sources on this, but I highly recommend Dan Olson’s Manufactured Discontent and Fortnite, which is going to serve as the initial springboard for a lot of the ideas I’ll be discussing later.

 Defining Terms

It’s best to begin by laying the groundwork for what a core concept is going to mean throughout this essay. What exactly is meant by “manipulation”?

One way we could define the term is “the use of any method to get someone to do something they would not otherwise do.” This definition would capture a whole lot of things – using rhetoric would be manipulation, threatening punishment would be manipulation, lying would be manipulation, and so on.

This definition would be overly broad, though. One of the key things we want to keep in mind is that “manipulation” is negative. It is the use of certain tools, or the use of those tools for certain purposes, that makes it “manipulation.”

Take the following example: you are trying to make a decision between buying two products. You are currently leaning towards Product A. But I have a good sense of your preferences, and I know that you’d end up liking Product B much more. So I find some way to encourage you to purchase Product B instead.

According to the broad definition I gave above, this would be manipulation. If I did nothing, you would be buying Product A, rather than Product B. It is only because of my intervention that you ended up buying Product B. But we wouldn’t really think of that as manipulation, because I am doing something for your benefit. My manipulation becomes ethical, which in turn effectively prevents it from being manipulation.

But then we want to ask what we could change about this situation.

Firstly, let’s specify the tactic I use to get you to change your choice: let’s say I lie. You are unlikely to take my advice if I tell you directly that you’d prefer Product B – you have a tendency to reject suggestions from others because making that decision feels “inauthentic” to you. So instead, I tell you that Product A has been linked to something bad – I heard a bunch of people got sick using Product A, so it sounds potentially unhealthy. That gets you to then decide to go with Product B instead.

Is this manipulation? We’re now in a gray area – I am still doing this for your benefit, but using an ethically dubious method to get you to change your choice. Arguably we could put this under the heading of “manipulation” on the grounds that it is disrespecting your autonomy – your ability to make rational decisions on your own. But then we get into the problems of psychological biases – if you can’t make fully rational decisions on your own, not because you are stupid but because you are prone to irrational biases just like everyone else – does this kind of tactic still take on a negative meaning?

Second, let’s remove the lie, and instead change the benefit. I know longer know whether you’d enjoy Product A or B more. But I am an investor in the company that makes Product B. So I encourage you to buy Product B, because it will boost that company’s profits (admittedly, by an insignificant amount, but that isn’t the point), which thus benefits me.

Is this manipulation? We’re now clearly in the realm of manipulation – we would be hard-pressed to find someone who would say it isn’t manipulation. And this behavior is definitely unethical. Once I am doing something to help myself and only myself, using any kind of tactic to change your mind – unless I divulge my own interest in the decision – becomes a form of tricking you to get what I want.

So for the purpose of this essay, I’m going to place primary importance on the question of “who benefits” to determine manipulation. I will be placing secondary importance on the “how” part of the equation. In particular, the method will rely on how much the method is being clear about what it is doing and why. The less transparent, the more manipulative it is.

We do have to deal with the problem of “what if both parties benefit?” What if you like Product B, in the final example where I am an investor in Product B’s company?

To which we need to answer that what matters for ethical purposes is the ultimate purpose of the manipulation – what is the main force driving the intervention? There can potentially be mutually beneficial interactions – both of us can be better off as a result of me getting you to change your behavior. But for this to be ethical, I would need to be intervening for that purpose, acting in a way that is clear about that purpose, and doing this all in a way that respects your ability to make your own decision. To what extent am I pushing this mutually beneficial solution because I am convinced that we both stand to gain, versus pushing it because I stand to gain, and your benefit is irrelevant?

And here is where the method is going to matter most. When “who benefits?” is unclear, or where we might point to a mutual benefit, to what extent is a person being tricked? How much are we relying on a person truly making their own choice?

Microtransactions and Manipulation

So with a working – if incomplete – understanding of manipulation, let’s examine microtransactions, what they do, and how we can apply our theory of manipulation to them.

Defining “microtransactions” cleanly is tough. We generally use terms like “expansions,” “DLC,” “add-ons,” and “microtransactions” with the idea that they are all different, but the lines have always been blurry, and have become increasingly blurry lately.

Let’s use Destiny 2 as an example. Every few months the game releases a new “season” which contains new story and gameplay elements, as well as additional equipment. The changes usually aren’t major, but certainly constitute new content. So are these seasons an expansion, DLC, a microtransaction, or some combination, or all three?

The best definition we can really give of a microtransaction is that it is an “in-game” purchase. Once you own the game, the game markets and attempts to sell you further content in various ways, whether it is to expand your experience and allow you to play longer or to provide you with items for your experience.

Generally we think of microtransactions as being small – they are called microtransactions, after all – but I’m not sure even this component of the definition is important. An in-game item being sold for a few dollars would definitely be a microtransaction. What about the same item sold for $1,000USD? We might say “no,” but the only thing that’s changed is the price tag – the item is the same, the benefit to buying the item the same, and so on. Similarly, in-game currencies are always discussed as microtransactions, but those can be bought in incredibly expensive quantities. At which point, the “micro” component is meaningless. It is a term being used to distinguish how much money we’re spending, rather than the tactics being used to get us to spend that money.

And I think it’s important for us to focus on the tactics. Because the tactics used to sell you a $10 season or a $50 “expansion” can end up being the same. If we associate microtransactions with something negative, we want to think about what is so negative about them. And the thing that makes them bad is not “it’s just a little bit of money.” What makes them bad is the way the companies manipulate players into spending that money. Which means that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s $1 or $100.

The Psychology of Microtransactions

So what makes these systems manipulative at all?

The first thing we need to look at is how the systems affect player behavior. Because if players aren’t actually being affected, then there can’t be manipulation going on.

So herein lies one of the major problems. We can’t definitively prove that a player is being affected. Why? Because to show that, either they would need to tell you that something affected them, or you would need to construct an artificial universe to allow them to make a different choice. The second option is obviously impossible. The first option is going to be a problem, because we tend to be pretty bad at explaining our own thought processes after the fact.

Instead, we have to look back to our understanding of psychological biases and how those biases impact decision-making. It is because of the studies we have on these issues that we know that these kinds of tactics do affect how people think. That doesn’t mean that therefore every player is being manipulated at every single moment, and every decision you make in buying a game, playing a game, or purchasing a microtransaction is the result of this manipulation. You can, at the end of the day, make a rational decision about these things. But we want to think of making a rational decision as an uphill battle – a struggle that we are more likely to “lose” than “win.”

So let’s look, for example, at in-game currencies. Most games-as-a-service (GaaS) games offer players a special currency that is only usable within the game itself. The currency is then generally used to buy various things within the game, whether it is extra levels, a season pass, cosmetic items, or even to be exchanged with other players.

The nature of currency is that it is sold in bundles, often starting at about $5 or $10USD, and then getting larger and larger. The implicit “price” of a unit of this currency is 1 unit per 1 US cent. But the bundles then offer “free” additional currency, usually growing in amount as the player purchases larger and larger bundles. So a $10 bundle might yield 100 extra units (1,000 for the normal bundle plus 100, meaning you’re getting $1 worth of currency for “free”), but a $100 bundle might yield 2000 extra units (10,000 for the normal bundle plus 2,000, meaning you get $20 worth of currency for “free”).

The in-game currency has multiple effects. For one, as we know from the first essay, people feel more open about spending “scrip” (a stand-in for value) as opposed to spending actual cash. So for an item that costs $5USD, you are more likely to buy that item if the price tag is 500 units of in-game currency than if the price tag is actually $5. So by obfuscating that aspect of the purchase, the game developer can get you to spend more money than you otherwise might.

In addition, the nature of the bundles hides the value of the currency itself (again, go watch that Manufactured Discontent video, it’s really good). The price of a unit of currency is supposed to be 1 unit per 1 cent, but then when the free currency is being thrown in, that calculation changes. Because if you’re getting extra, then really it’s less than that 1 cent. The point then is that while something may cost 500 currency, you are meant to associate that cost with $5, but the lack of clarity about the “real” value of the currency means you also don’t necessarily think about the cost as actually being $5.

And finally, the nature of the bundles themselves, with the increasing amount of “free” currency, are designed to get you to buy more bundles and larger bundles. This works in two ways. Firstly, because a bigger bundle means more “free” stuff, your thought process is meant to be “by spending more, I’m actually saving money.” This, of course, is only true if you know that you’ll plan on buying more later. But it’s unlikely that you truly know that. Instead, you are making a guess on what you might do in a way that essentially justifies your own decision – you are potentially fooling yourself into spending more.

As well, the “free” currency included in the bundles usually means you have currency left over. Let’s say, for instance, that a season costs 1,000 units. So you spend $10 to buy 1,000 units, and get 100 units free. Then you buy the season. But you still have 100 units left over, which you are constantly reminded of when you go into your menus. And as you see various items that you could buy, but which you can’t because you don’t have enough currency, you eventually feel pressured to buy more currency – either a lot or a little – so that you can get rid of the “excess” that you have.

So the very design of these in-game currencies – their very nature, how they’re sold, what they can be used on, how much the various items cost – are all forms of manipulation to get you to buy more currency. And that’s just one aspect of monetization.

Other Microtransactions

Let’s look at a couple other elements of the microtransaction ecosystem.

Consider the seasons themselves. Many GaaS games provide players with rewards for playing. The more hours you put into the game, the more rewards you get. But these games often offer special rewards for players who buy in to the game’s season. You get more rewards, and you get them faster, and the game often shows you what you’re missing out on.

In addition, new seasons often mean new content of some kind, and only players who buy in get to see and make use of that content. Players who haven’t paid will often see the existence of that content, and perhaps even get a chance to try the content, but will then be reminded that if they want to join in, they too will have to pay.

These things on their own aren’t manipulative. It makes sense that if you’re going to release new content, you would charge for it, because the value of the content is related to the work the studio put in.

What makes it manipulative is the way that the lack of that content is pushed into the faces of the players who haven’t bought in. It is effectively a way of constantly reminding players of what they could be getting and doing, which is meant to make them feel like they’re missing out. And by fostering that feeling, the player then eventually breaks down and buys the season so they can get the rewards or join in on the activities.

Or look at loot boxes. Subject to regulation in several countries now, a loot box is an item you can earn or buy that contains random rewards. The “box” might be purchased directly and opened, or might be earned in some other way with the player then purchasing the “key.” There are a ton of examples of loot box systems in games, from various sports games to Overwatch.

The point of the loot box is to include incredibly valuable items that players could earn, but which are incredibly uncommon. Loot boxes then operate as a form of gambling – you are purchasing something without knowing whether you will “win” or “lose.” And like with gambling, people can effectively become addicted in an attempt to chase after a win – getting one of those big valuable items. This means that those players who get particularly hooked end up spending huge amounts of money.

The randomness and the design of said loot boxes are then meant to tap into those aspects of gambling that feel fun. Once that’s done, the rush you get from the gamble can lead to further gambles through various other psychological biases – sunk costs, the desire to “get back” your losses with a big win, and a distortion in your perception of whether you’ll win and lose.

There are plenty of other aspects of microtransactions that work in this same way. They are designed to change your mind in some way about paying for more content. They appeal to not your reason – “here’s a choice you could make, and you might enjoy the content, but here’s what you’d be getting just to be clear” – but instead subtly pressuring you in various ways to get you to purchase content regardless of whether you’d enjoy the content or not.

How can I say it doesn’t matter if you enjoy the content or not? In looking at various monetization systems in games, it’s hard to find many safeguards in place to prevent people from making “bad” decisions. The inability to get refunds for purchases, or to try content more fully before buying in, or the fact that these companies aren’t checking players’ spending habits for possible signs of addiction and putting additional hurdles before them, are all things that point us to the conclusion that they don’t care if you make a bad purchase. If you do, that’s your fault. Ignore how the systems are designed so that it’s very easy to make a bad purchase.

Game Design, Grind, and Sunk Costs

Lastly, let’s look at the very design of these games. Because even the design of the games are manipulative in how they push players toward paying.

The key is the grind. GaaS games in general are designed to have a long life, which means having players hang on for long periods of time – months or even years. And so you can’t have players stick with the game if they can easily complete all of the game’s content within a couple weeks. Instead, you need to rely on various tactics to make sure that players have reasons to keep playing.

Now of course, one way to keep players engaged would be through fresh content. But that’s not actually possible – the rate at which players can churn through content means you’d need new things every day. A game reliant on player-versus-player interactions, such as Overwatch, might survive in this landscape because PvP is inherently “fresh” at pretty much all times. But what about a game where the core experience lies in the player versus the environment? New content can be pushed out regularly, but not fast enough to keep players engaged if that’s all you have to offer.

Instead, these games need to rely on repetition and slow-walking aspects of the experience. For example, you want to get certain items in a game: a cool weapon, for example. There’s a good chance that you can only get that item randomly from running through some part of the existing content. And so by getting players to grind out content over and over again, they can get players stuck.

How so? Well, we’re back again to the sunk cost idea. If you’ve spent 20 hours going through most of the base content of a game, and you decide you want a specific item that takes you 30 hours to get, then after 50 hours you’re more likely to say to yourself “well, I’ve already spent 50 hours, so I may as well keep playing, since I’m so invested now.”

So you then make a new goal for yourself so that you have a reason to keep playing, which takes even more hours to fulfill, at which point your total is even bigger, and you repeat the same idea: “well, I’ve already spent 100 hours, so I may as well keep playing, since I’m so invested.”

By continually dragging out content, players get more and more stuck into the game, because quitting seems like a waste of all the time and money that’s been spent.

At which point, a new season comes out. And, well, you might as well spend the money to buy in, because you’ve already spent so much time and money on the game at this point. And the cycle repeats itself until the player quits or the game just shuts down, whichever comes first.

This isn’t to say that the game design is bad. Rather, the game design is established to serve a particular end, which is to get players to invest and feel invested to the point that it’s not worth quitting. It would be interesting to think about ways in which a game could offer a fresher experience more consistently, how a game could get players invested without needing to rely on grinding out missions or instances. But until such a solution is offered, we want to think about how this aspect of a game’s design further serves to manipulate the player.

But we still need to be aware that the point of this design is not to maximize fun for the player. Grinding is boring. The point is to figure out how to make the grinding feel like it’s worth it, enough to keep the player hooked. Whether the player is having fun or not is irrelevant, as long as the player remains within the game. Because the game needs players to stay in. Once they’re in, whether or not they are really enjoying the game doesn’t matter.

The Bottom Line

There’s a lot of other stuff that could be covered here. The subject of manipulation is complex and how games manipulate players is likewise complex.

But to sum this all up, the design of so many of these games and their monetization strategies is to find ways to get you to part with your money. To use the various biases in human psychology to make you think you want to buy something, even if you might otherwise decide to not buy it or even quit playing altogether.

Now the obvious rejoinder to these points is that someone who buys these things is getting something in return for their purchases. Whether it’s a cosmetic item, or a season pass, or new content, all of those things constitute something of value. It’s not like these games are just asking players to hand over money for nothing.

While that is technically true, this all misses the larger points. And this is why we looked at the issue of “value” in the first essay. Is a given weapon skin worth $7? Is a given emote worth $8? Is a new season worth $10? Because we lack so much information about the cost and prospective profit of a given piece of content, we don’t know whether the asking price is ethical or not. And since so many of these prices are obfuscated behind virtual currencies and the like, their “value” becomes questionable. And then the very fact that we struggle to properly value things because we have “bought in” to a system makes the above claim fall flat.

Secondly, though, is that this whole system is not simply existing out in the ether. We’re not simply dealing with a bunch of people losing a few bucks here and there. A large portion of these microtransaction economies are sustained on the backs of a small number of purchasers, often people who suffer from some form of addiction. In other words, these systems make much of their revenue by preying upon particularly vulnerable players. That in and of itself should be something to be abhorred: we would regard someone taking advantage of us as something worth being angry about, and demand that others acknowledge that wrong. But when it’s someone else being taken advantage of, we tend to perceive it as “their own fault.”

And so the reason we need to point out and constantly remind ourselves of the manipulation behind these systems is so that we remember what is being done to us and to others. Fighting psychological biases is difficult – just knowing about them doesn’t make them go away. And often the biggest hurdle is not even being aware of these biases in the first place. It is often those who are least aware of their own ignorance that are most confident in their ability to reason.

So we should be continually examining every aspect of these games – especially when they are asking for money – and ask ourselves whether we are being manipulated.

Of course, that we end up buying something does not mean we are manipulated. Nor does it mean that no individual piece of content in these games is ever “worth it.” It is certainly possible to enjoy a new season of a game because it provides new content in a game that you want to play more of. But neither does it mean that since people can derive genuine enjoyment that such manipulation does not exist.

Concluding Remarks

This set of essays is meant to get us to think more critically about how we engage with content and spend our money on games. A lot of people complain, for instance, about microtransactions. But the problem is that those complaints on their own often have very little impact. Occasionally you see small changes here and there, but microtransactions are here to stay because they are profitable.

If we really wanted to get rid of these practices, we’d need to target them at the source. We’d need to not only stop participating in them ourselves, but encourage others to not participate, and then also refuse to buy games that contain microtransactions (which is admittedly difficult at this point, since so many games include these transactions in some form, and since as discussed above, the line between “microtransaction” [bad] and “expansion” [good] is continually getting blurrier). If we really want to stop developers and publishers from incorporating these things into their games, we need to make them unprofitable – they have to be spending more putting that content together than they can get back by selling the content to players.

I began this series by noting how I’d returned to Destiny 2 after a long hiatus. And I’d gotten back in to play with friends. And in returning, I’ve done what I often do when I get into any kind of game like this: I get pretty invested. I’ve spent a significant amount of time, and after buying only the bare minimum for what I’d need to play with friends, I ended up deciding to buy even more to get some of the content I was missing out on.

I wrote these essays in part because the very pressures I’ve been talking about here and the biases I discussed in the first essay are pressures and biases that I myself was experiencing in real time. I could look at all of these things and feel the strings being pulled in my mind.

And so is the time and money I’ve spent worth it, on the whole? How many more hours will I put into it all? Will I buy the upcoming expansion? Will I pay for more seasons? How much longer will I keep playing? Will I buy any more silver (the in-game currency)?

Am I really enjoying this game, on the whole?

The answer is really “I don’t know.” I can say I’m enjoying certain things, and that’s enough to make up for the grind. I can say I enjoy playing with those friends, and that outweighs the fact that what we’re doing is running the same content over and over again. I can say all of these things, to myself and to you, but even I don’t know whether those things would be true. That’s why this whole discussion is so hard.

But we can’t even begin to have this discussion unless we are aware of and understand the biases that we face and the pressures we are faced with.

Epilogue

Again, there’s a lot I didn’t cover in this essay. So I wanted to provide a few additional sources on the subject of money and manipulation as some additional reading.

The Psychology of Loot Boxes and Microtransactions – This blog post very helpfully summarizes a lot of the psychology research behind the biases that impact purchasing behavior, especially as these biases relate to these microtransactions. It also very helpfully cites the studies that this information is being drawn from, so you can go and read that information for yourself.

[Video]How Roblox is Exploiting Young Game Developers and [Video]Roblox Pressured Us to Delete Our Video. So We Dug Deeper. – Two excellent videos specifically on the manipulative practices used by the game/game design platform Roblox, such as how the game uses claims of being able to make money, obfuscates how money is made, and in many ways continually bleeds prospective designers of their money in various ways.

[Video]How Gacha Games Trick Players into Spending Thousands – Video on the use of loot box mechanics and the psychological biases behind the systems.

Chasing the Whale: Examining the Ethics of Free-to-Play Games – This article brings up some basic issues about monetization in free-to-play games and the ways they can be potentially exploitative or manipulative. It also features a number of interviews with various people within the industry and outside of it. I think important to reading this article is a more thorough interrogation of the claims made by various people within the industry – those who stand to gain from denying that their games are manipulative.

The Top F2P Monetization Tricks – This article helps explain some of the ways in which free-to-play games subtly manipulate players into spending money.

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