Character formation: Another look at addiction to buying virtual in-game items

I was recently interviewed at length by Mike Rose for an article he published on the Gamasutra website entitled Chasing the Whale that examined the ethics and sometimes addicting nature of free-to-play games. The article began with the story of Chris, a man in his mid-20s who played a lot of the game Team Fortress 2 (TF2). While playing TF2 he started to buy virtual items from the online store to use in-game (such as keys to open in-game crates). After opening some of the crates, Chris would share the online booty with other online gamers and “keep the good stuff” for himself. Chris got social benefits from giving away some of the virtual items to other players and this alone was worth paying real money for. Within half a year of buying his first virtual item, he ended up spending all the money he had:

“I’d use birthday money, I’d eat cheaper lunches, I’d ask my wife to pay for dinner so I’d have a spare $10-$20 to spend in the store. Which does mean, I guess, that I was thinking about it even away from the game. [After buying my first ‘unusual’ item marked with a purple seal] I had this unbeatable rush of adulation and excitement. For someone who didn’t get out much I was on cloud nine. And at that point things changed. I started chasing that high. My savings got wiped out pretty quickly – although it should be noted that at the time I didn’t have much put away to begin with. The real trouble wasn’t that it cleaned out my bank account, but that it put me in a really delicate situation. With no savings and every dollar not spent on food, shelter, or utilities going to digital hats, any unexpected expense became a really big deal.It got so bad that at one point Steam actually blocked my credit card, thinking I was some sort of account scammer [playing a] stupid game with fake hats. And like any addicted user, my social element didn’t help – most of my outside-of-work contacts were people I just played TF2 with.

At work I just wanted to be uncrating things, and when I was uncrating things I just wanted to see better results. [This then affected the relationship with my wife]. I’ve never really been addicted to anything else, so I can’t say for certain whether a ‘real’ addiction would be stronger. I would say that it felt akin to what I’d expect a compulsive gambling addiction would feel like – social pressures reinforced a behavior that kept me searching for an adrenaline rush I’d never be able to recapture, even as it kept me from making progress in life. There were nights where I’d be up until 3am drinking beer and playing Team Fortress and chasing those silly hats with purple text, ignoring the gambler’s fallacy and swearing that if I dropped another $50 I’d be sure to win this time. Then I’d wake up the next morning and see that I’d not only spent over a hundred dollars on digital hats, but failed my only objective by uncrating a bunch of junk”.

According to Rose’s account, it was on these mornings that Chris felt the worst. When the reality of what Chris had done hit him, he felt depressed and worthless. He told himself that he wouldn’t spend another penny on buying in-game items but just like a gambler, as soon as he got his next pay cheque, every last penny would go on buying new virtual items. To the game developers and operators, Chris is known colloquially as a ‘whale’ (i.e., one of the 1% of players that spends large amounts of money within free-to-play games and allows the gaming companies to make profits despite the fact that 99% of players don’t buy anything in-game). Chris said:

“I have to question whether a business model built on exploiting ‘whales’ like me isn’t somewhat to blame. Free-to-play games aren’t after everyone for a few dollars – they’re after weak people in vulnerable states for hundreds, if not thousands [of dollars]” 

Rose then started tracking down other ‘whales’ to get their stories. Many 9but by no means all) were similar to that of Chris. Rose questioned how many free-to-play game developers are building their profits on vulnerable players like Chris. More specifically he “pondered whether these ‘whale’ players are fully consenting to the hundreds and thousands of dollars that they are spending, or whether they are being manipulated and exploited by underhanded design that purposely aims to make the player feel like they simply have no choice”.

Rose’s own research highlighted that many whales (even those that had spent thousands of dollars) felt they had got their money’s worth (i.e., they had lots of fun playing and had simply bought their entertainment). Others said they were spending money they could afford and could stop any time they wanted to. Despite Chris being in the minority, Rose asserted that:

“A business model where even the smallest portion of players can find themselves losing control and essentially ruining their lives, is a model that must surely face scrutiny, whether on a industry or governmental level”.

To me, this has a large similarity with the gambling industry that has recently started to put social responsibility at the heart of its business model. Rose interviewed Ben Cousins, industry insider and an outspoken proponent of the free-to-play business model who said:

“I believe that the responsibility to control spending on any product or service lies with the consumer, unless there is some scientifically proven link to addiction as is the case with products and services like alcohol and gambling. When these links are established, I feel industries should self-govern first and if they fail to act responsibly, be subject to governmental control. I would personally like to see wide-ranging independent studies done before we jump to any conclusions about any negative psychological effects. When looking at a small sample size there is always going to be a lack of certainty in extrapolating that data to a larger population. I think if we see a broad proportion of the spending userbase reacting as they claim to have in these accounts, it’s easier to read this as the developers having discovered a damaging method of psychological consumer manipulation. When a very, very small proportion of the userbase react in this manner, while sad, it’s easier to read this as perhaps individual issues with those people which may be expressed in any number of negative ways, not just with spending in free-to-play games. I’m sure small numbers of very negative stories could be found for spending on almost any product or service”.

This line of reasoning was often used by the gambling industry 20 years ago and is currently being used by the video game industry more generally. I certainly believe that all forms of gaming (offline video gaming, social gaming, online gaming, etc.) will eventually embed player protection, harm minimization, and social responsibility into all of its products. In my interview for Rose’s article, I made a number of observations based on my many years studying both gambling and gaming. More specifically, I was quoted as saying:

“On first look, games like FarmVille may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology behind such activities is very similar. Even when games do not involve money, they introduce players to the principles and excitement of gambling. Companies like Zynga have been accused of leveraging the mechanics of gambling to build their empire. One element particularly key in encouraging gambling-like behaviour in free-to-play games is the act of random reinforcement – that is, the unpredictability of winning or getting other types of intermittent rewards. Small unpredictable rewards lead to highly engaged and repetitive behavior. In a minority of cases, this may lead to addiction. In those instances when there is no money changing hands, players “are learning the mechanics of gambling and there are serious questions about whether gambling with virtual money encourages positive attitudes towards gambling. The introduction of in-game virtual goods and accessories (that people pay real money for) was a psychological masterstroke. It becomes more akin to gambling, as social gamers know that they are spending money as they play with little or no financial return. The one question I am constantly asked is why people pay real money for virtual items in games like FarmVille. As someone who has studied slot machine players for over 25 years, the similarities are striking. The real difference between pure gambling games and some free-to-play games is the fact that gambling games allow you to win your money back, adding an extra dimension that can potentially drive revenues even further. The line between social free-to-play games and gambling is beginning to blur, bringing along with them various moral, ethical, legal, and social issues”.

Given my research background and my interest in gaming convergence, this is certainly an area I will be keeping a close eye on over the coming months and years.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Digital impact, crossover technologies and gambling practices. Casino and Gaming International, 4(3), 37-42.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Gaming convergence: Further legal issues and psychosocial impact. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 14, 461-464.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Gambling on Facebook? A cause for concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 11(9), 10-11.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Social gambling via Facebook: Further observations and concerns. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 104-106.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

King, D.L., Haagsma, M.C.,Delfabbro, P.H.,Gradisar, M.S., Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Toward a consensus definition of pathological video-gaming: A systematic review of psychometric assessment tools. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 331-342.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online social networking and addiction: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on December 2, 2013, in Addiction, Computer games, Gambling, Games, Internet addiction, Marketing, Obsession, Online gambling, Online gaming, Popular Culture, Psychology, Social Networking, Technological addiction, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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