My Response To: “Adding gambling to games isn’t the problem”

MCV Gambling Response

With all the recent controversy over microtransactions, lootboxes and whether or not they are gambling some outlets have picked up the story and have given their opinions on it. Some have chosen to defend the practice with no criticism, some have chosen to blindly defend it. This is my response to MCV’s article titled “Adding gambling to games isn’t the problem – unless you’re some kind of puritan”.

MCV’s article starts with the following:

People have always gambled on games of skill and chance. And there’s nothing wrong with sensible gambling, in the same way there’s nothing wrong with the sensible consumption of alcohol, or sensibly having sex with people you only just met, or even the sensible driving of cars – though that last one’s a bit more controversial.

The statement “there’s nothing wrong with sensible gambling” would be fine on its own if it wasn’t followed up by stating that it is equivalent to having sex with strangers or driving a car. The comparison given to the consumption of alcohol however isn’t as ridiculous since both alcohol and gambling are activities known to be addictive. I have to assume that the writers use of “sensibly having sex with people you only just met” is a joke or a clever way of saying that gambling is dangerous regardless of how you do it. As for “sensible driving of cars” I have no idea.

The article follows up with:

Gambling in and of itself isn’t a terrible thing. You may not like it, but morally speaking it’s not the big bad here, please come along to a poker game with me and my friends and show me who’s being exploited by whom.

This is the second time the writer has made a statement that feels more like a joke than a serious point. Talking about gambling but using poker as an example is disingenuous since there is undeniably an element of skill involved when playing poker. The cards you draw cannot be guaranteed and as such there is an element of chance in play however the game of poker isn’t about the cards you draw, it is about how you play them. Stating the obvious as well, there is no mandate for poker to be played for money either.

This is where the meat of the article starts:

Recently though gambling seems to have become the number one enemy for many gamers. When actually it’s pay-to-win mechanics as part of a microtransaction model which are the problem, not gambling.

The statement “it’s pay-to-win mechanics as part of a microtransaction model which are the problem” nails the issue on the head. However, the inclusion of “not gambling” implies that the gambling element of the pay-to-win model is not a part of the problem. This is one of the core parts of the problem people have.

The problem being this: EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II necessitated (by locking the player out of gaining the in-game currency after a short play session) the purchase of lootboxes with real money to unlock in-game content. The contents of which are unknown to the purchaser and as such it was not possible for users to acquire the content that they wanted without continuously opening these boxes until the item that they wanted finally dropped. The content that was locked behind these lootboxes was in-game characters, weapons and abilities that were superior to those that players that don’t invest in lootboxes wouldn’t have equal access to, giving them a disadvantage in a skill based competitive video game. This is a predatory and unethical business practice.

Also calling it “pay-to-win mechanics” shows a lack of understanding in regards to game design. A financial transaction that takes place outside of the game is not a game mechanic.

The article continues by changing the subject:

Look at this another way. Say real-money gambling was added to PUBG, every player put in £1 (or 10p or whatever was agreed) at the start of the game, the house took say 5% to cover costs, and the winner got the rest, would that really be a bad thing?

To answer the writer’s question: no. However just because something isn’t a bad thing doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. In my opinion the inclusion of any kind of gambling system based around player skill in a medium full of cheaters, broken game design and netcode is unethical, unsustainable and dangerous.

The article is now covering a different (although related) subject. Including this kind of gambling system inside the game however puts a large amount of responsibility on the developer of the game to make sure that this system and their game software in its entirety works flawlessly, which given that the game being used in the example is Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (a game so buggy and unoptimised that the recent console release is literally unplayable) shows a lack of awareness on the writer’s part.

Apart from the fact that developers already have a responsibility to ensure their software is flawless (not that many of them actually do) this creates a lot of new issues. Such as opening up an excuse for governments to start regulating video games, what happens when a player is cheating in this mode, what systems would be put in place to limit how much people can spend on it and how to go about educating parents and carers on what this is and how it works for each and every game that would include this kind of system.

I would like to propose an alternative to this idea: A dedicated service that exists outside of the game, isn’t created by the game’s developers so that conflicts of interest can be avoided that allows players to gamble on their favourite players and watch the game play live with systems in place to protect against instances of cheating or fixing. This alternative already exists and it’s called a bookmaker.

Moving on:

It would undoubtedly reduce the amount of players who quit any given game, and likely make the meta more risk averse, but given that the game of PUBG would still be balanced between the players, it’s not going to throw off the underlying design. Of course it’s an established title now and it’s never going to switch to a literal ‘pay-to-play’ model, but it’s an interesting hypothetical example nonetheless.

The article has now brought up another unrelated subject, quitters. Apart from bring up an unrelated problem (that wouldn’t be fixed by this idea) this statement is pretty much just reaffirming the previous one.

Now, if you took the same scenario and dolled out random game-changing upgrades, to the value of the winnings, then you’ve got a big problem. But if the payout is in cold hard cash (and the house limit is low enough to help deter serious problem gamblers) then the gambling and the game have been effectively separated, the gameplay itself is largely unaffected, or possibly even affected for the better.

I didn’t expect the article to say something as reasonable as this. There definitely would be a massive problem if the winnings from the introduction of a literal gambling system gave the player advantages in any way, I would go even further and say that if it gave any content not available to players that don’t use this system it would be way too far.

The idea of a house limit is also a great idea if such a system was to be introduced into games. To state that gameplay could be “possibly even affected for the better” is ridiculous however as the writer has already states that this system would need to avoid any changes to the core gameplay.

In short gambling in gaming doesn’t have to be a problem. So let’s move on.

This is a non-statement, nothing has to be a problem.

Now of course, games have always allowed a real-world resource to affect games: time. And gamers have always been largely OK with that, based on some inherent sense of fairness or work ethic, encouraging those with more time to spend on a game to have an inherent advantage, but many console gamers seem to have drawn a line at money.

And that’s their right.

I don’t like the statement that “games have always allowed a real-world resource to affect games: time” because this implies that time spent playing a game is time wasted which isn’t the case. If you enjoy the time you spend playing the game then your time hasn’t been wasted at all. If you don’t enjoy the time you spent playing a game then you have the option to stop playing.

Including “but many console gamers seem to have drawn a line at money” misrepresents the reality that most gamers (not just those on console) have drawn the line at spending money for on-disc content.

It’s up to the players of your game, your consumers, to decide if the playground you are providing works for their own sense of fairness and proportion or not. And it’s up to them to complain if they don’t like it,. Hell, it’s a lot easier to get EA to change its loot drops, than it is to get the government to change its stance on the legalisation of marijuana say or prostitution, but in either case it’s up to the consumer/electorate to decide if they like what’s being provided or not.

Unsolicited political commentary aside this is quite reasonable. It is up to the individual consumer to decide if they want to play a game, they should complain when they have issues with it. However, “it’s a lot easier to get EA to change its loot drops” unless there is a system of transparency put in place then this is not the case, the drop rates can be obfuscated or the information shown to the player could be completely fictional. However the problem isn’t the drop rates of lootboxes, the problem is lootboxes.

Mobile gamers haven’t yet felt compelled to be quite so vocal about the application of money in their games. Which is obviously where the inspiration for recent loot box models has come from, with publishers hoping to remove the cap on monetisation that a full-priced game plus DLC previously represented. With microtransactions, publishers can fully monetise ‘whales’ to sums many times that of the average consumer.

Mobile gamers are not playing games in the same market so the comparison is pointless. The writer also shows a complete misunderstanding of where lootboxes originated. The lootbox originated in console gaming, specifically in the EA developed FIFA and UEFA football games. An objective and interesting breakdown of the development of this can be found in this video by Skill Up.

But let’s be clear, there’s no intrinsic moral right or wrong in that decision, it’s all down to how such mechanics are implemented and whether that fits with the majority of consumer’s ideas of what gaming should be.

The inclusion of a predatory business model is ethically and morally wrong. Lootboxes are not mechanics, microtransaction are not mechanics, external gambling is not a mechanic. The problem is that these predatory game developers and publishers ignore the majority of consumers in pursuit of profiteering from the vulnerable whales.

My main concern is that publisher’s could be shifting to creating games that are designed in part to attract the biggest-spending consumers at the expense of the mass market – and while that may prove profitable in the short-to-medium term, in the long-term it could put off some long-standing consumers and reduce the size of the gaming market as a whole.

Your main concern is already a reality, it is called Electronic Arts. Your other concern that “it could put off some long-standing consumers and reduce the size of the gaming market as a whole” shouldn’t be a concern. If these companies go bust and collapse as a result of their greed then that is the will of the market and they deserve that fate.

Our only option is to watch the mobile games space keenly over the next couple of years to see how things play out there. There’s been a gigantic boom over the last few years, but as consumers become more educated after their initial forays into Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, will they return time-and-again to new such titles to spend equally significant sums?

This isn’t an option, this is a suggestion. The “games” mentioned are also free-to-play titles that people play on the bus or on the toilet and they are not comparable to the business models of the vast majority of the games that release on PC and console.

The article is full of misinformation, speculation and endorsements of volatile and anti-consumer practices whilst feigning concern. Although there are a few statements that are reasonable, it is clear from the article’s title that the author is being openly hostile to those that are critical of these unethical and predatory business practices.

The idea of a developer controlled gambling system is unethical and ridiculous, it opens up the many possibilities for conflicts of interest.

The writer also demonstrates their complete lack of understanding of what a game mechanic is.

To conclude, this article is full of bad ideas, anti-consumer sentiment and a complete lack of awareness. None of the proposals in this article would fix the problem and some of them would make it worse. The best thing for consumers to do is remain vocal, boycott companies that have these unethical and predatory practices and stay vigilant.

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About Mojomancer 38 Articles
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I write reviews and critique the games industry. I cover a variety of topics including business models, game mechanics and user interface design.

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