In Part I, Saferize founder Gustavo Guida reflects on the recent GDC 2018 game design ethics roundtable and concludes that game designers are locked in a Prisoner’s Dilemma with potentially devastating consequences. In Part II, he delves into the specific issues of loot boxes, gambling, and gaming addiction.
Loot boxes and gambling
Take for example loot boxes. For those who don’t know what loot boxes are, they are treasure chests with random items. Players do not know what’s in loot boxes, and the chances of finding valuable items inside them are very low. Players can buy more loot boxes with real money, and are incentivized to do so, with the promise of huge payoffs, just like in casinos. The difference is that, with technology, game designers can actually personalize the payoffs depending on the individual player’s appetite for risk and reward, maximize their attractiveness. As Robert de Niro’s character in the movie, Casino, says: “In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.”
Some countries, such as Belgium, are already classifying loot boxes as gambling. In the UK, regulators admitted that “the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred,” but have not made any moves to classify loot boxes as gambling. Here in the US, some regulators are increasing the scrutiny over loot boxes, but the practice is still permitted. It doesn’t help that ESRB, the self-regulatory organization founded by gaming companies, considers loot boxes to be no different than any other paid content, refusing to classify it as gambling.
For me, ESRB is just another Skeptic, and is being willingly blind to the negative effects this feature could have on children.
To add to the pile of evidence that game mechanics are inspired by gambling, Consider that video game companies use the term “whale” to define a user who spends lots of money on virtual items. The same term is used for casino players who bet (and lose) great sums. And, like in casinos, game companies focus their marketing efforts to extract the most from those whales.
And like gambling, video games can be extremely addictive. But many Skeptics tend to use misleading language to convolute the argument and blur the line between what is compelling and what is addicting. For example, Aaron Marshall, a video game designer from LA summarizes how Skeptics think: “Video games are akin to most legal products and pastimes today. They can be responsibly consumed, or they can be abused. We do not condemn books because an avid reader is spending an irresponsible amount of time reading fiction novels. Why should video games be singled out when a player is playing too much?”
His point is valid, but I would argue that his conclusion is false. If someone reads so much that her life is affected, that person should seek “rehab,” just like any other addiction. In fact, there are rehabilitation facilities for digital addiction. But the reality is that children don’t spend that much time reading — less than 30 minutes a day. However, they do spend many hours per day on screens. According to Common Sense Media, even kids as young as 0 to 8 years spend over 2 hours a day on screens. According to another study from Common Sense media, for tweens (8–12 years old), this time triples to almost 6 hours a day on average. Teenagers (13–18 years old) spend an astonishing 9 hours per day interacting with screens.
However, it turns out that there is a scientifically measurable difference between a desire to play a video game, and an addiction to video games. With a focus on internet games, the North American Psychiatric Association (APA) has defined this addiction as Internet Gaming Disorder. It is disturbingly similar to gambling addiction (which is the only recognized addiction besides substance addiction). It basically states that a person is addicted to gaming if it interferes with other aspects of their lives and the pursuit of their goals.
Game Addiction and Cigarette Addiction
No discussion of addiction would be complete without mentioning tobacco, and some Pragmatists are not even embarrassed to make the connection between gaming and tobacco. Take for instance how this game publisher shamelessly recommends the use of celebrity endorsements: “For generations, celebrity power has been used to sell everything from soda and cigarettes”.
But there were also Concerned participants who made the same connection between gaming and smoking, specifically pointing to how some gaming companies employ similar practices used by the tobacco industry in the past. And gaming isn’t the only industry that is faced with these issues, nor is it the only industry where people are concerned with the effect that these tactics are having on children. For example, at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff was interviewed and voiced his concerns. Later on, he made the following statement via Twitter:
But again, we see the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Do game designers betray each other in a never ending cycle, continuing to make video games more and more addictive in an effort to stay ahead of the curve? Or will we eventually see an era where the industry cooperates to create better, safer games? The biggest question is whether or not game designers would be willing to potentially lose some profit in order to self-regulate.
Professor Schreiber summarized this dilemma well, saying: “If the goal of game designers is to maximize the revenue a game brings, creating addictive experiences might be required.” He added, saying, “Trying to ethically monetize a game might impact the company’s profits.”
Solving the Dilemma
But what if there were a way for Concerned game designers to create non-addictive experiences, without abandoning the goal of maximizing monetary profit? Well, there is.
Saferize offers a way for designers to eliminate this trade-off between profit and ethics. By implementing our SDK, apps have an area specific to parents, so they can set up controls such as screen time. To have access to those controls, parents pay Saferize a monthly subscription that is shared with the app publisher. While parents get the tools to effectively curb digital addiction for their children, game designers are incentivized to implement our software, since they receive extra revenue from Saferize. It’s truly a win for everyone involved.
We hope that Concerned game designers and publishers embrace our vision, so kids have a balanced life, enjoying games without succumbing to addiction.
Gustavo Guida has been involved with product and marketing since 2000. Third-time entrepreneur, he found and sold two successful businesses before co-founding Saferize. Father of triplet girls.
- Virtual reality franchise to open its doors in Dublin is a free-roaming gaming experience like no other
- Top game designer Romero in gender discrimination claim against UL
- Every game is 'like a fight'
- Every game feels like a knock out now says Pat Lam
- Oil, Water Mix To Improve Central Asian Relations
- Pep Guardiola says Spurs and Man Utd games are like 'finals' for Man City
- 'The dying days of Cambridge Analytica were like Chinese water torture'
- Dublin gaming studio WarDucks gears up to take on Pokemon Go
- Will gaming ever be seen as an art form?
- Angry Birds AR lets you play virtual 3D game on ANY surface using iPhone camera