Not all DLC is created equal. There are traditional expansions, regularly refreshed season passes, and little playable extras that are too good to be free even if they’re not quite substantial enough to be sold as a full campaign. There are premium music bundles to listen to (hi there, Super Robot Wars), and shiny new cars to drive. Whether you find any value in these extended offerings is down to personal preference, but they’re available to buy if you want them.
The difference between DLC and microtransactions is a deliberately subtle one, the latter hiding in the former’s more respectable shadow. The slight but significant distinction is partly down to the scale of the virtual offerings themselves – A funny hat. A sexy bikini. One hundred gems to spend in an exclusive in-game store where the cheapest thing just so happens to cost one hundred and fifty gems. The colour of an outfit, a decoration for an outfit that can only be used in tandem with a few other paid-for options. A single pack of digital cards that might contain one you can use, never mind the one you wanted. – and partly down to the way they’re marketed; new time-limited deals popping up the instant you try to look away, actual costs deliberately obscured by quantities of imaginary crystals, coins, and credits that make meaningful value judgements virtually impossible, the ephemeral promise of a chance to join in with the real fun.
Of course all the manipulative tricks and techniques used so gently, so politely, to prise money from wallets have been well documented long before I put fingers to keyboard: The reward systems that grant bonuses if you stay longer or play more often than you know you should, the way you always end up with two of something left over from the daily free goes and another attempt just so happens to need three of whatever that is, the manufactured FOMO of not having the latest cross-collaboration item, the “Welcome back” campaigns and reactivated honeymoon periods to try and “convert” lapsed casual players into reliable long-term backers. You already know those things exist, and you already know they don’t occur by accident.
But there’s one element that I feel gets passed by in these discussions:
The fear of succumbing to one more go.
The fear of hearing a friend or loved one say “Wow, I tried fifty times and I didn’t even get the EX character I was hoping for!“.
The fear you feel in your stomach as you watch someone linger just a little too long on a storefront, letting the game talk them into another bad decision.
The fear that comes from telling yourself you’ll only buy the one just because you really like the game and no more – for real this time. Again.
The fear that the next news story about someone who lost everything because they, or their partner, or their kids, were just having some fun with their favourite game will have your name in it. You never meant for it to get this far, but it did anyway.
Or to put it another way: The very personal impact these very impersonal sales environments have on us.
But the above are just hypothetical extremes, right? And we all know that anything taken to extremes is bad whether that’s drink, drugs, or dentistry: an unhealthy outlet is an unhealthy outlet, and if one person’s weakness happens to be microtransactions then what’s the difference between them and anyone else?
The difference as I see it is that gaming likes to pretend toxic extremes and rock-bottoms are the preserve of traditional “vices” and the weak, and this pervasive attitude denies those who need it all the small social nudges that help to put these things in perspective or correct potential pitfalls before someone’s fallen into them. Nobody thinks a good friend is the one who lets you get drunk to the point of throwing up over your own shoes before letting “This really nice person I met by the loos… Dave, I think?” take you back to their unknown place, and that’s because we all accept that truly terrible things can happen if you let “a bit of fun” spiral out of control, even if only once, and even if you personally find drinking to excess every now and again a lot of fun. By the same token nobody who cares about you is going to let you chain-smoke anything from dawn until dusk the way my gran did (not-so-fun-Kimimi-fact: as I kid I used to crawl about on her carpet to try and get under the visible layer of cigarette smoke hanging in the air) without saying something, even if that something is little more than “Bloody hell, wouldn’t it be easier to just set fire to the whole sodding packet?“. The well-worn and woolly phrase “in moderation” isn’t reserved for beige people who think oat milk is a bit too spicy for them, it’s just a general warning that acknowledges that too much of a good thing may lead to something pleasant becoming deeply unpleasant, even if only for a short while.
Gaming doesn’t really have that social safety net. The World Health Organization has a page labelled Addictive behaviours: Gaming disorder, but good luck getting a “first world problem” like that formally diagnosed by any medical professional a normal person’s likely to meet within their local health service, or for any organisation to stand up and admit they caused the problem and had nothing in place to stop someone’s little molehill from becoming a life-changing mountain. Buying a few digital bits and pieces is still largely seen as a passive choice – the user’s choice. An option. Just some extra goodies, and you don’t have to buy them anyway. It’s all cosmetics, so what’s the problem? People just need to learn self control. Ignore it. Everyone’s doing it and has been for some time now so if people don’t already know it’s a rip-off then that’s on them.
And by insisting everything’s fine and the problem lies with individuals rather than the systems they have to engage with (for example there is no reasonable way to engage with big modern hits like Minecraft or Fortnite to name just two without swiftly encountering a bunch of pushy ads for exciting new optional content designed to sell you Minecoins or V-Bucks) we lose the helpful social buffer that helps to keep an honest bit of fun – and buying a new coat of paint or a meme-y dance is for many people just an honest bit of fun – from transforming into something darker. There’s no space to say to anyone you care for “Hey you already bought a thousand tokens worth of stuff last month, isn’t a thousand more already a bit much?” because gaming – as a culture, as an attitude – is almost entirely dismissive of the concept of “a bit much“; there’s just a spectrum of consumers running from “casuals” to “real fans” to “whales“. And while it’s the big “whale” purchases that sporadically make the gaming headlines it’s the smaller transactions that quietly ruin more ordinary people; the endless trickle of nothings, all priced low enough to be nigh-invisible, all individually so cheap that to casually question them makes concerned onlookers sound like hysterical pearl-clutchers. You’re a killjoy for bringing up something so small, the party pooper spoiling the party all company metrics state everyone else is having such an engaging time at and besides, Billionaire PR Trained Relatable CEO Guy has just tweeted that he understands your concerns but you really shouldn’t worry about it – just try it for yourself and you’ll see how much more reasonable and generous their system is compared to everyone else’s. It’s the future of gaming! Go on, the first taste’s free…
From the current rush towards NFTs to the normalisation of microtransactions to consciously harmful employment practises, “big gaming”, as a sharp-suited collective of large international corporations, has shown time after time it’s happy to exploit people – exploit us – to the farthest fringes of all legal and ethical limits until we have nothing else left to give. People receive a thousand little cuts from this well-oiled machine by design. We are all frogs being slowly boiled alive – Oblivion’s horse armour sounds positively quaint in this day and age – and those of us they haven’t caught yet aren’t smarter or more resilient than anyone else, we’re just another “potential growth opportunity” waiting for our turn to be exploited – and when it happens we’ll be told it was all our own fault for falling for it, and our friends and family won’t be there to help if it gets out of hand because they’ve been told over and over it’s all just fun and games until the moment it becomes a capital-P Personal Problem with no in-between.
It doesn’t have to be this way.