You Don’t Need To Defend Video Games

After months of work behind the scenes, the ABC’s Four Corners finally aired an investigation into the workings of the video game industry this week. You could almost set a clock to the inevitable reaction: accusations of poor reporting, misrepresentation, a lack of developer insight and balance, and a general lack of appreciation for the “good” video games have done for people.

Some of the complaints make sense, but it also fundamentally misses the main point.

video games
A loot box from Overwatch.

If you strip away the differences between the report and the original article — an abridged form of the Four Corners story that went live early Monday morning — the main cut and thrust is that a certain segment of video games has built its business model on an interlocking series of systems designed to convince people that microtransactions and micropayments have more value than they actually do.

The way Four Corners got to that argument was clumsy. The repeated motif of dark rooms only lit by RGB keyboards was an echo of the fearmongering mainstream coverage of the ’90s and ’00s. The innate nature of the Four Corners program has structural flaws, too. The story can’t progress without a direct quote, but sometimes those quotes feel a little forced. Why, for instance, was the cosplayer and streamer the one making grand pronouncements on video games and gambling when you have one of the academics responsible for presenting research to the Senate inquiry on microtransactions on the exact same topic?

But still, the fundamental argument is no different to one gamers and specialist gaming media has been making for years.

Loot boxes are designed to exploit us. Microtransactions are designed to get people to spend. Not all games and developers build systems in a predatory manner, and not all studios and publishers lean on technology to maximise their profits with A/B testing, manipulated values and other psychological tricks to extract “value” from “customers”.

But is the problem still there? Of course it is.

Much of this conversation isn’t new, either. When the Senate inquiry into microtransactions sprang to life out of nowhere, it was met with universal acclaim. Government oversight and regulation of video games is almost never welcome. The industry has weathered decades of knee-jerk reactions and scapegoating of all things from Night Trap to GTA 5. It is the entertainment medium that is least understood by older generations and the easiest to blame.

But the idea that even politicians had caught a whiff of the fury spawned by the excess shown by Star Wars: Battlefront 2, Middle-earth: Shadow of War or the ongoing casino-esque advertisements within the NBA 2K series? Finally, they get it, people thought.

The industry had danced around language for years, saying loot boxes were anything but gambling, including “surprise mechanics” at one point. Talk about “whales” had entered the public consciousness well before Overwatch popularised loot boxes. We knew there were stories of people burning thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands on consumable items and virtual skins with no resale value. The nightmare surrounding secondary markets, skin trading and the advertisement of skin gambling — often to minors — had done the rounds for years.

I saw complaints on social media of people complaining about Four Corners linking microtransactions and psychological manipulation being unfair because they used the Assassin’s Creed’s feather collecting mini-quests, which had nothing to do with microtransactions or monetisation.

Entirely fair. But what if Four Corners had called out FIFA Ultimate Team instead? Or people spending more than $4 a pop to open CS:GO cases? Or just the sheer amount of games using loot box-like mechanics? What would people say then?

I want to digress, if only because some of the reflexive, hyper-defensive reaction from some quarters has reminded me of concerns in an adjacent, nascent industry that has a habit of reacting the same way.

A few years ago at PAX Australia, I was sitting on a panel talking about esports in Australia. Having done a few, one of the most consistent questions you could bank on from the audience (or panellists themselves) was concern over the “negative” portrayal of esports.

The fear was that esports was permanently reliant on the support of marketing budgets and sponsors, and any coverage of unsporting behaviour, or too much focus on covering the “bad” stories — without an equal, if not greater, number of “positive” stories — would be fundamentally detrimental to the future of esports.

We know what the worst parts of our community are, but if you shine a spotlight on it, everything we enjoy, all the good parts of this world will be taken away. That was the subtext.

At the time, and as one of the chief proponents of covering esports just like every other industry, my argument was simple. The industry was never going to go away because it was built, thrived and survived off the goodwill, energy and money on the players and fans within it. Those fans and players were the ones who funded tournaments that paid for, at best, half-price plane tickets for a national tournament. Those fans and players got older and then went into various companies who helped fund the licenses to then ensure that next generation could represent Australia in Sweden, Germany, South Korea, San Francisco, Italy, Shanghai, or wherever Australia’s representatives needed to be. Those fans have since gone on to help fund players and teams directly, investing in merchandise, direct Twitch donations, sticker sales in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, creator codes, Dota compendiums, affiliate links for peripherals, special edition mice, keyboards, and so on.

Esports was guaranteed to survive because its actual base never went anywhere. The number of players and fans was growing, and always expected to grow. Whether brands got on board, whether they were endemic to video games or not, was never the concern. The audience was always there. And where audiences lie, support will eventually follow.

Shadow of War’s loot boxes and paid marketplace, after much criticism, were patched out of the game entirely.

The fundamental point is not that games aren’t wonderful, or that most Australians have an incredible experience, or that the majority of the industry acts in good faith. The point is that good faith isn’t enough. Australian consumer law innately understands this, and so does the regulator that repeatedly reminds vendors of its existence. It’s not that companies seek to inherently skirt local law or abuse the faith of their customers, but that human nature and capitalism combined will always test the boundaries of any protective mechanism, and citizens expect their elected representatives and agencies to hold that line accordingly.

Unfortunately, the line doesn’t exist in video games yet. Gaming grew too fast, too quickly for anybody to draw the line. And gamers themselves have been calling for that line to be drawn for years.

When Valorant releases skins that cost $138 apiece, or mobile games offer “bundles” of in-game currency in the triple figures, people joke they would never make such a ludicrous purchase; anyone who does should be embarrassed. It’s their fault, the comments say. Shame on them.

But is that the problem? Or is the problem that we have joked and known for years that some people do make those ludicrous purchases — enough for developers to justify their inclusion and slowly creeping incursions on the boundaries of what people will pay? And that those purchases increase the likelihood of others making smaller transactions that they might otherwise avoid because of the perceived value?

At what point does a microtransaction just become a transaction?

Even the industry’s language these days indicates a willingness to accept stronger restrictions on in-game spending.

“But with the array of games, and publishers, and different actors within this market, there will always be those who aren’t as upfront as they should be,” Ron Curry, CEO of the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association, told Four Corners.

Put another way: there are always going to be bad actors in video games, the mobile market in particular, but beyond relying on good will, there’s not a huge amount anyone can do to stop them.

Consumer awareness alone, mind you, is never enough. Poker machines are a useful parallel here. We know they are designed to entice and appeal through conditioned responses, ambient music and visuals, random reinforcements schedules and multi-line betting. But it’s not just the machines or their creators, but the environments that house them: casinos, pubs, clubs which offer punters free coffees, drinks or snacks to tide them over and quell any distractions that might pull them away.

And we know, as Australians especially but society more broadly, that works. That combination of just all the right things doesn’t trigger me to sit down at a poker machine, not now, not ever. But I know that digital blend of art and psychological craft works on others. And it’s doing the rounds in front of increasingly younger audiences, who might not have had the life experience or safeguards to protect themselves.

A shot of the microtransactions available in Valorant, where you can spend $129.99 on 9750 in-game ‘points’.

Logical as all of this is, I still don’t think that’s the core of why the Four Corners report immediately triggered a reflexive, hyper-defensive, “what about the good in video games” response. The Four Corners story could have shored up all of its bases in written and video form, and people still would have complained that it wasn’t representative of their experience of video games.

That ignores the subtext of what’s being said about the experiences of others who are left scammed or caught unawares. Usually, the response is that it’s the players’ fault. They should have known better. It doesn’t touch on whether the industry needs to take advantage of people to that degree; it’s not like video games are suffering from an absence of cash. The combined revenue of the world’s largest platforms and publishers is equivalent to the GDP of some major Western countries. Analysts, consultants, psychologists and economists are paid high salaries by major publishers to maximise monetisation. And while it may not be effective, and many companies try to tow the line as ethically as possible, it’s also a reality that publishers are relying on microtransactions and their ilk to help fund the increased cost of selling video games.

So rather than trying to pick a fight about individual responsibility, doesn’t it make more sense to own the next, more meaningful conversation? If microtransactions are to be a permanent cog in the funding of all video games, premium or free-to-play, where do we draw the line? How do we draw the line, and who enforces it? Platforms? Governments? Individual regulators?

If companies are going to build and rely upon algorithms that draw upon the data on your mobile device, or a broader platform account, what rights do and should consumers have to see that data? Should gamers be able to wipe or modify their data profiles — not just to refresh their game recommendations, but so they can exercise some measure of control over how they are advertised to, and what that data says about them? If free-to-play development becomes vastly more complicated because of the change to the funding base, should there also be a cap applied to the cuts platform holders like Apple, Sony and Steam take?

The questions raised by the Four Corners investigation, when you get right down to it, aren’t that interesting. It’s not because they don’t matter; it’s because we’ve had that conversation years ago, multiple times, without any satisfactory resolution.

But just as it will in 2021, the industry survived that harsh spotlight and hard questions unscathed. And that’s the key thing to remember: video games will be fine, irrespective of what I, you, Four Corners, government MPs, individual developers, or anyone else has to say about it. It is a veritable juggernaut of an industry of a size and scale completely unlike anything else before it. It can sustain the same criticism that other industries face every day, for the same reasons esports was always destined to thrive and survive. The fans aren’t going anywhere, and neither are the generations of creators powering it.

Video games will be fine. What it needs is an honest, mature, thorough conversation about what we want the industry to look like in five, 10, 15, 20 years on. And if we want that solution to mirror something we can all get behind, then we’re better served leading that conversation and building that solution before somebody else makes it for us.

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