Mind Games – Psychological Hooks in Modern Gaming

As much as we’d like to believe that we are far more than just the result of millions of neurochemicals within a flesh bag that’s wired to crave the most pleasurable outcome, it’s hard to argue with the data. An indicator that is bashing us over the is the amount of time we spend gaming our lives away in virtual worlds, seeking our next delicious feedback loop or dopamine fix in the latest games to drop.

Over the years, the amount of time that we collectively put into video games has skyrocketed – and with the onset of online gaming, the pace has accelerated and shows no signs of stopping. As more people turn toward gaming to connect with faraway friends and family, the landscape of the digital realm begins to change dramatically – and the whole world is along for the ride.

Just think about it. Less than two decades ago the concept of paying for virtual goods was preposterous – yet there are now dozens of online marketplaces tailor-built for the sole purpose of facilitating exchanges between sellers and buyers of wares that don’t exist in the physical world. Character skins, coveted items, even in-game services such as ready-made parties and content-clearing groups are up for the highest bidder.

Since 2003, the average amount of time that Americans spend playing video games has risen by 50% – that means that your average gamer spends over two hours per day logged in to their favorite virtual pastime. Whether it’s on PC, console, mobile, or a combination of the three, gaming has become a ubiquitous part of modern life – but how has the market demand them impacted their design?

In a brutal example of supply and demand at work, it didn’t take long over the past decade for developers to realize that they could implement small and subtle changes to the design of their applications to get people to not only want to spend more time using them, but to also spend more.

While the end-user’s experience has always been at the forefront of game design, there has been an insidious perversion of the hallowed art. As developers realized how much untapped capital there was just begging to be harvested, game design began to shift away from player enrichment and over to “how do we monetize this”?

As fate would have it, there came a massive influx in commercialized Skinner boxes masquerading as video games. These “games” were little more than virtual operant conditioning chambers, which would entice the player to play by doling out generous rewards in the beginning and then subsequently throttle them down to coerce the player into opting to pay for a “shortcut” to said reward much sooner.

A good game strives to be addictive. It yearns to be the title that has such an elegantly crafted feedback loop that keeps players hooked for years on end – but what many of the industry’s largest developers have turned them into is something far more malicious. Somewhere along the line, nickel-and-diming the masses became far more profitable than just charging once for the package up front.

What’s more, these microtransactions amid Skinner boxes do have a specific quarry in mind: a whale. “Whales” are the term developers use to define end users that tend to spend exorbitant amounts of money on in-app purchases. Sometimes, these users are very well-off and have cash to burn. Other times, they are young individuals who don’t possess control over their addictive personalities, leading them to falling into debt that they are ill-equipped to face. Regardless of what way we look at it, predatory tactics are being utilized to dangle bait that is tailor-made to entice those that may drop several thousand on a good that exists only as lines of code within their device.

The concept of hunting for “whales” takes even more of a disturbing shade when we isolate the utter dehumanization that takes place during the process of targeting these individuals. Through labelling them “whales”, the developers a linguistically putting them in a separate category. They are not a customer to be served with a product and made happy, they are a quarry to be caught and have their worth fully extracted. Like actual whales, these individuals are high-priority targets for the industry, and we shudder to think of what “overfishing” could look like in a scenario such as this.

While not all developers go to these lengths, the influence of gamification and positive reinforcement has become so pervasive that many modern titles struggle to find a balance between the two. Long-gone are the days where the reward for playing games was the experience itself, now every action must be quantified through an experience bar, checklist, or shiny bells and whistles to signify that you’ve managed to wipe your own ass without complication.

These inclusions, while in sparing use can be great boons to a title, are now so over-implemented that they rip the player straight out of what could have otherwise been an incredibly immersive experience. Nothing kills narrative faster than arbitrary requirements on progression. We know you’re ready to see the next dramatic chapter in the story of Generic Protagonist No. 3, but that juicy sliver of exposition is locked behind collecting X quantity of bear pelts – so why not just drop us a fiver and we can skip that quest entirely? #economics

But narrative-driven games aren’t the biggest culprit. While a story-heavy game will whisk the player out of reality to worlds that beg to be explored and engaged with, it is titles such as those that lull the player into a trance and fade all external stimuli but the game itself into the background that see the greatest influx of funds from their players.

Ever wonder why titles like Clash of Clans managed to reach such astronomically success? At base, the game is nothing more than an RTS – but through time-gating the production of buildings and then selling shortcuts through the in-game store, the devs can pocket all the money they could ever hope to.

The worst part of all of this is that despite complaints and questions regarding the ethics behind their implementation, these features are placed into nearly every game that has come off the production line for the past five years – even EA’s latest Need for Speed game featured a virtual slot machine that would dictate if the player received parts for their car to upgrade. You remember those, right? Those things known as rewards of progression that would be doled out through in-game achievement by any sensible developer?

While the industry has shown that it can have discussions surrounding the topic of microtransactions, there has been little to no proper regulation since they’ve fundamentally altered how many game companies do business. The latest – and biggest – debacle to encircle the conversation was at the hands of Electronic Art’s blunder with Star Wars Battlefront II. And while the community outcry was massive and investigations into claims of soliciting gambling to minors was opened, there have yet to be any concrete moves toward a direction free of microtransactions. In fact, we may never see such a future come to pass.

Yet, every well will eventually run dry, and sooner or later the industry will find itself gazing about hungrily for the next best avenue to voraciously dump development funds into for hopes of securing ludicrous returns on their investments. When that time comes, both the industry and gamers will have to make a choice: will they let massive dev houses further degrade and insult their customers? Or will they push toward a new age of digital asset regulation? Only the future will tell, but you’ll have to forgive us for being apprehensive.

Oh well. Maybe we’ll just head back down into the bunker for some good ol’ relaxing Monopoly. Just kidding. You’ll find us dead before ever picking up that abomination of a board game ever again.

Start the discussion

to comment