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Note: The following are excerpts from You've Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All by Adrian Hon
Gamification is the term most commonly used by critics and businesses and governments, and it’s generally understood to mean taking a normal activity and applying game mechanics and aesthetics to it, such as points, badges, levels, and so on.
Most game designers engage with psychology only to the extent they’ve used or have heard of “variable reinforcement ratios,” a simple technique that reinforces a desired behaviour by giving rewards at unpredictable intervals. It’s employed in plenty of games and used most devastatingly by slot machine makers to keep players hopeful the next pull of the lever will be the one that’ll make them rich—or at least, win back the money they’ve lost.
[Freemium games] games earn money either through advertising or increasingly inaccurately named “microtransactions” starting as low as ninety-nine cents but ascending to as much as a hundred dollars. Though self-identified gamers tend to look down upon the biggest freemium titles like Candy Crush, Homescapes, and Clash of Clans, these mobile games are more profitable and more popular than all but the biggest console games. Most of their revenue comes from big-spending “whales”: on Apple’s App Store as a whole, 6 percent of customers accounted for 88 percent of all spending on games in 2017, exceeding a yearly average of $750 per customer. The remaining 94 percent of users still contribute revenue, albeit much less, by viewing adverts and the occasional discounted microtransaction to skip the grind of an especially frustrating puzzle or opponent.
Fortnite, another freemium game made by Epic Games, skilfully combines monetisation and grinding in its seasonal Battle Pass system. Battle Passes cost around ten dollars and include countless costumes, avatars, dances, and backpacks. These goodies aren’t all available after purchase, however—you need to “level up” your Battle Pass in order to unlock them. Of course, this process involves playing enormous amounts of Fortnite by completing challenges like “destroying 3 toilets,” “finding 3 car parts,” or gaining one hundred headshots. One reviewer estimated it takes a minimum of fifty hours to fully unlock a Battle Pass. That doesn’t sound too bad until you consider this needs to be completed within the ten-to-twelve-week length of a season and is best completed through daily and weekly challenges, plus teaming up with friends. Another journalist put the time commitment at fifteen to sixteen matches every day. True, there is nothing compelling players to fully unlock their Battle Pass, except for the Fortnite’s ever-cajoling user interface and the nagging feeling that if you don’t, you’ll have wasted ten dollars. Battle Passes are now common throughout the games industry, with Halo Infinite’s pass including sixteen to eighteen hours of daily challenges, helpfully leaving just enough time for a few hours of sleep.
This addiction to ever-greater returns on capital is being taken to an extreme with darker and more manipulative loot box mechanics. These are also known as “gacha” mechanics, after gachapon capsule toys sold by vending machines popular in Japan. Feed in a few coins and you might get the figurine you need to complete a set—but more likely, you’ll get one you already have. Their use in video games is essentially the same, with players paying the equivalent of a few dollars in virtual currency for loot boxes that contain anything from useful gameplay-altering weapons and armour (as in the wildly popular Genshin Impact) to purely cosmetic items like costumes and vehicle decals, like those I bought in Rocket League. Often you’ll gain a few loot boxes for free as you play, to whet your appetite. These games within a game are not currently regulated like gambling—and they can be played by children.
Loot boxes have become a contentious political issue. In 2020, NHS mental health director Claire Murdoch said, “Frankly no company should be setting kids up for addiction by teaching them to gamble on the content of these loot boxes. No firm should sell to children loot box games with this element of chance, so yes, those sales should end.” Later that year, the Gambling Health Alliance, an organisation established by the Royal Society for Public Health, found that one in ten young gamers had borrowed money they couldn’t repay to spend on loot boxes, and one in four spent over one hundred pounds on loot boxes over the course of completing a game. A 2021 report for GambleAware by Dr. James Close and Dr. Joanne Lloyd found that while most players spent modest amounts on loot boxes, the minority of high-spending whales were not wealthy people who could afford the spend (as often insinuated by the games industry) but simply problem gamblers.
Electronic Arts has been among the biggest beneficiaries of loot boxes. Its sports video game franchises including FIFA, Madden, and NHL all sell Ultimate Team loot box “packs,” each containing a random assortment of players, power-ups, and other items. Revenue from Ultimate Team was a staggering $1.49 billion in 2020, according to video game market analysts at Niko Partners, contributing 27 percent of EA’s net revenues for the year, with an internal company document obtained by CBC News in 2021 calling it the “cornerstone” of FIFA, adding, “We are doing everything we can to drive players there.” Concerned by the potential impact on children, in 2019 the Netherlands Gambling Authority fined the publisher the maximum possible €10 million for violating the country’s Betting and Gaming Act, explaining, “It is crucial to shield vulnerable groups, such as minors, from exposure to gambling. For that reason, [we support] a strict separation between gaming and gambling. Gamers are often young and therefore particularly susceptible to developing an addiction.” (The fine was overturned by the country’s highest court in early 2022 on the basis that the loot box packs were “not a standalone game.”
Loot boxes play on all the mechanics of gambling except for the ability to get money out in the end.” Coincidentally, the lack of an official way to turn loot box contents back into money is one of the loopholes explaining why the UK’s Gambling Commission has not already regulated loot boxes.
Studies show that teenagers who play simulated poker have a much higher chance of playing poker with real money one year later, and that gamblers who play casino-style games are influenced to gamble more with real money afterwards. This evidence may have swayed a 2020 announcement by the Pan-European Game Information organisation to assign an eighteen age rating to any new game with “elements that encourage or teach gambling.” Interestingly, older versions of Pokémon containing casino slot machines would have fallen afoul of these new rules.
Online gambling is learning from the faster speed and interactivity of video games. Features like live betting, microevent betting (e.g., betting on who’ll win the next point or game in tennis, rather than the outcome of the more lengthy match), and instant cash out (so any winnings can be instantly bet again) all contribute to an accelerated “online sports betting loop” designed to keep punters playing longer. Many betting companies now offer a nonstop series of virtual sports events like sixty-second-long greyhound races every minute of the day, complete with computer graphics and audio commentary comparable to the latest video games. And to close the loop, officially licensed non-fungible tokens (NFTs) like NBA Top Shot’s gacha-style digital trading cards have enabled athletes and bettors to collect, trade, and speculate on video highlights of basketball games for vast sums of money.
Legislators and regulators are rightly focusing on video games engineered to consume hundreds or thousands of hours of players’ time and monetise the inevitable frustration. That doesn’t mean, however, we should ignore the minor but more widespread sin of games that waste players’ time by means of compulsion loops. “Compulsion loop” is a scary-sounding term for a simple process. First, make players anticipate a reward, like a more powerful sword or the prospect of travelling to a new game area. Next, give them a challenge, like killing monsters or solving a puzzle. Completing that challenge earns them their anticipated reward, which in turn presents or unlocks yet more challenges for yet more rewards (e.g., the new game area includes a new quest giver). If this sounds a little behaviourist, that’s because it is, though the challenges are usually far more fun than those in generic gamification. The most fun games have a kind of looseness and play to their loops such that you barely notice them, or they can be so wide and subtle, they’re more of a suggestion than a mechanical system. But if it sounds like compulsion loops could in some circumstances lead to compulsive behaviour, well, that’s the entire point. Some might even call the resulting behaviour addictive.
I. Gamification makes the leap from Big Brother to this is fun.
II. Gamification, however, allows for a constant intrusion into our private lives, and the cumulative effect from multiple apps can feel crushing. Shortly after I settled in with a novel on my iPad, a notification appeared congratulating me for meeting my “daily goal.” Since I hadn’t set a goal, it had defaulted to five minutes. I later saw my nephew celebrating meeting his yearly reading goal, which by default is three books. There are also reading “streaks,” with records for the number of days you hit your daily goal in a row. You can change or deactivate these defaults, but it feels like giving up to do so, even though the initial goal was never truly your own.
Add a fitness tracker, an educational app or two, and a meditation app, and soon you’ll be encouraged to make every moment productive—and punished if you don’t. Even when you’re not at work at your job, you’re at work improving yourself. There’s no more time when you aren’t playing, no moments of respite in Erving Goffman’s “backstage,” where we can drop our facade and step out of character. This self-monitoring even affects the well-off and rich. Once, elites and the rich didn’t have to work, thanks to passive income and rents. Today, when social capital comes from what you do at work (or your work-like hobbies), everyone works essentially all the time. So while you might think the upper middle class and beyond are free to relax after five o’clock, they’re still under pressure to invest in themselves to improve their status. That self-improvement gamification doesn’t necessarily work is beside the point—people still feel the need to participate.
III. Jared Nelsen, a software engineer based in Boulder, Colorado, caused a stir amongst the programming community in 2020 when he revealed what he called the “horrifically dystopian world of software engineering interviews.” In a blog post, Nelsen described how after typing some obscure code into Google’s search engine, the website faded to black and showed this text:
You are speaking our language… Would you like to take a challenge?
2. No thanks
Nelsen had fallen into the rabbit hole of a Google programmer recruitment game. He typed “1” and was given an algorithmic programming challenge to solve within twenty-four hours: “Given an array nums containing n + 1 integers where each integer is between 1 and n (inclusive), prove that at least one duplicate number must exist…” Five challenges followed, with the ultimate prize being… a phone interview. He was rejected the next day. Perversely, those job offers aren’t for companies like Google or Facebook—they’re for Crossover itself. Crossover pays its programmers as low as fifteen dollars per hour, The Verge reported, and rents them out to clients. Those clients manage programmers’ work with a program called WorkSmart, through which their every action is monitored. To make doubly sure programmers aren’t slacking off, their webcam takes photos every ten minutes; if they aren’t in front of the computer or working fast enough, they won’t be paid for that ten-minute interval. It goes without saying that the WorkSmart dashboard includes a leaderboard ranking every programmer’s activity.
MV: TikTok took the webcam spying to new levels according to a report on Business Insider, titled: An ex-TikTok moderator, who was paid $10 a day and had to scroll through child abuse and gun violence, [and] was required to keep her webcam on all night.
IV. Plenty have likened social networks to games. Charlie Brooker, creator of Black Mirror, calls Twitter a “multiplayer online game in which you choose an avatar and role-play a persona loosely based on your own, attempting to accrue followers by pressing lettered buttons to form interesting sentences.”
V. America’s Army is ostensibly a marketing and recruitment tool aimed at gamers. Its gameplay is essentially the same as first-person shooters like Call of Duty, but with more realistic weapons and combat, along with an “Honor” ranking system requiring adherence to the US Army’s seven core values and the Soldier’s Creed. As of 2018, the series had more than fifteen million registered players with over 278 million hours logged in the game. This reach hasn’t come cheap—the game costs millions of dollars a year to run, as reported by GameSpot—but the Army presumably views it as a bargain compared with advertising on TV. And adding to its value, the Army “readily admits” the games are propaganda.
VI. Every trading service has its share of users who lose more money than they can afford; that there are Robinhood users with tales of woe is not surprising. The problem is that in its pursuit of accessibility and growth, Robinhood’s gamification of trading may have encouraged inexperienced investors to make risky trades. According to research by the New York Times, during the first quarter of 2020, Robinhood users traded nine times as many shares as users on E-Trade, another online trading platform, and bought and sold over ten times as many risky options contracts as TD Ameritrade users. Most tragically, twenty-year-old Robinhood user Alex Kearns killed himself in 2020 after seeing a negative $730,165 cash balance in the app due to his trade of a “bull put spread.” Kearns left a note saying, in part, “How was a 20-year-old with no income able to get assigned almost a million dollars of leverage?” reported Forbes. But Kearns didn’t owe $730,165. In fact, his balance was $16,000 in the green. The difference was due to the time it takes for options trades to resolve, which clearly Kearns didn’t know. Bill Brewster, Kearns’s cousin-in-law and research analyst at Sullimar Capital Group, told Forbes, “Tragically, I don’t even think he made that big of a mistake. This is an interface issue, they [Robinhood] have slick interfaces. Confetti popping everywhere. They try to gamify trading and couch it as investment.” Brewster added on Twitter, “I strongly believe there are Pavlovian gambling associations embedded into that product.”
Learn more about You've Been Played on Amazon.
Buy You've Been Played: Print | Kindle
If you enjoyed this summary, please consider buying me a coffee to caffeinate my reading sessions.