Pay to play: The exploitation of gamers

Photo: flickr

I originally wrote this article to vent about the exploitation perpetrated by the current console gaming industry, but upon reviewing what I had written I realised that there was a wider point to be made about how governments deal with corporate exploitation in general. So that’s what this is, a look into how exploitation in one industry has become a convenient demonstration of what encroaching capitalism is doing to our 21st-century society. Perhaps gaming doesn’t exactly spring to mind when one broaches the topic of socio-economic fairness but look deeper and you will see that the problems with the gaming industry give us an insight into the kind of ideological fight that will be fought in the coming decades, especially with the move from classic money-in-hand exchange in a physical marketplace to online transactions.

What I am referring to as regards gaming is the so called “pay-to-play” culture, in which gamers are encouraged to continually invest money into a product after it has already been purchased. This takes various forms: micro-transactions where the player is urged to pay a small amount to unlock some particular component, downloadable content where the player spends a larger sum on substantial extensions to the game, or “season passes” and “memberships” which give the player additional features unavailable to other players.  

The problem is obvious itself developers and game producers are trying to exploit their customers by squeezing extra cash out of them. The idea is that when you’ve already spent £40 on the game in the first place, an extra £10 for more content doesn’t seem too bad. Turn back the clock 10 years, however, and the amount of content you get with the initial game was more than what they are selling today with the additional content added on. Many gamers are suspicious that developers hold back certain components of the game that they are planning to put in from initial release, so that they can sell them for an inflated price in the form of downloadable content (DLC). Pretty cynical.

And when you consider that this DLC is often targeted at younger players who are easier to manipulate than those older players who are at least aware when they are receiving something overpriced, the situation seems increasingly odious. It gets worse though, as often the DLC that players can purchase gives them an advantage in competitive aspects of a certain game, and with combative multiplayer being the largest selling point of these games, this is particularly important. Better weapons or abilities for certain players mean those who don’t spend money are at a disadvantage, and to catch up they must spend money on the additional content the game companies are putting out. See the vicious cycle here?

The reason that this is possible is largely down to the monopoly of gaming companies. A quick look through the list of console game developers reveals that for every developer that works independently there is one that is a subsidiary of a larger company or one that is defunct and no longer active. The main developers which dominate the western market are: Activision Blizzard, Nintendo, EA, Ubisoft and Take-Two which between them have an accumulated $138 billion market capitalisation (the market value of the companies’ outstanding shares).

This outstanding figure shows just how much the large corporations dominate the gaming industry, and why it doesn’t seem that they are bothered by charging more and more for players to enjoy their games. The more assured companies are of their position in the global market, the less they are willing to change their business practices. I again come back to the fact that the generation of younger gamers who are most susceptible to this kind of exploitation have become normalised in the practice of spending continuously on their games.

EA is arguably the biggest culprit in this business, having been criticised for introducing into Star Wars Battlefront II a loot box system in which players could gain substantial benefits by buying these loot boxes with real money. Star Wars having re-booted for the next generation of young fans and its merchandise being the most monetised is no coincidence. This is just one example of the pay-to-play culture that EA cultivate, and is one of the reasons that they have been consecutively voted “Worst Company in America” two years running.

Now to look at this in the wider context. Imagine a similar development in book publishing, where different printing companies banded together in an informal agreement to charge the consumer for a stripped-down version of a literary work. The fuller versions would only be accessible with several additional charges, such that to appreciate what the writer was trying to convey could only be done by purchasing these versions. Many would see this as a tax on knowledge, or infringement upon certain fundamental educational rights. Why should we treat such a tax in gaming as any different? Given that gaming, much like reading, has definitive social and epistemic value.

Gaming used to be a refuge for those who needed to escape the reality of life for a while, by immersing oneself in another kind of experience they could release stress and connect with other people who game as well. Moreover, though it has been given a reputation of an addictive source of diversion, gaming has, in fact, been shown to massively help increase cognitive abilities in adults and children. The positive attributes of reading are so ingrained that we take them for granted, so perhaps it is time we give gaming its due in this respect as well.

Even though it is very hard to act against gaming companies several attempted class-action lawsuits have failed previously it is crucial to consider whether gaming, much like education through reading, should be regarded as a more fundamental human right, and whether it is time that the government steps in to do something about its exploitation.



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