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Warning: Free-to-play gaming… or the wolf in sheep’s clothing!!

Whilst it’s obvious to a gaming aficionado like me, the government and society as a whole, seem to be sleepwalking into a disaster. Free-to-play (F2P) games have turned us into a nation of gamblers.

Recent government reports discuss the dangers of screentime, the addictive nature of social media, the negative side-effects of virtual and augmented reality, and more.

But what about the plague of free-game addiction that we’re currently facing - surely that’s the elephant in the room?

The problem all boils down to the fact the games are free. And free is harmful.

Unless we witness a u-turn from the industry in the near future, we’ll be facing knee-jerk reactions from governments that will shut down whole areas of gaming. It’s already starting to happen, with China and Belgium being the first to crack down on developers...

The experience of gaming has changed considerably over the years. In what seems not so long ago, you would head to HMV, browse the aisles and finally select a game; reluctantly resigning yourself to paying out £49.99. You’d take it home and play it relentlessly for months (until the novelty wore off and you could justify buying the next one).

Then came the freemium gaming model!

And we are still today, in the midst of a F2P gaming boom, across consoles, tablets and mobiles. No store visits are necessary; they can be downloaded at the tap of a button and played anywhere at any time. It’s all too easy really. But beware, with their irresistible micro-transactions and gripping gameplay, which have a striking resemblance to gambling mechanics, the addiction stakes (and growing backlash from society) are high.

Apple and Facebook were the first and main disrupters. We saw Farmville burst onto the scene in 2009 and suddenly office breaks were spent discussing planting, harvesting and when to milk your cow. But the biggest news of all was that the game was free.

This new business model had the gaming industry buzzing. With no barrier to entry, all you needed to do was to get the player hooked in under five minutes. And to keep them coming back. For developers to make revenue they came up with charging players small amounts of money to make the experience even better. The appetite for snackable games began to soar and the freemium behemoth was born.

Today, thanks to the easy distribution of digital content and the popularity of smartphone gaming, F2P has gone mainstream. It comes as no surprise that giving away free content is an easier way to find an audience in an increasingly saturated market. But as we all know, ‘there ain't no such thing as a free lunch’...

For F2P games to work commercially, two things needed to happen. Firstly, without upfront payment there needs to be an incentive to keep players playing; the fun has to be front-loaded and the gratification almost instant. Secondly, players need to be enticed into making repeated micro-transactions.

So, how do you get players to part with small, insignificant amounts of cash again and again?

By introducing techniques and algorithms that get players to spend compulsively without realising it. Using monetisation tools such as ‘loot boxes’ (a virtual ‘box’ you get to open and that contains random rewards).. The risk versus reward gives a small rush of excitement. Once the box is opened the release is often one of disappointment but sometimes one of joy, when you get what you want, and so to repeat the rush you purchase another, or play enough to earn another.

It’s not surprising then, that many casual game developers come from the gambling world; knowing how to encourage players to repetitively risk money in the hope of winning a prize, in what is called a ‘compulsion loop’.

According to gaming analytics firm SuperData, free-to-play ‘Fortnite’ earnt Epic Games a record $2.4bn in 2018, the 'most annual revenue of any game in history'. Its success is largely down to using state of the art practices to make the game as compulsive and addictive as possible. Fortnite is estimated to have brought in more than £1bn alone from the sale of character accessories and ‘skins’, and players can buy thousands of enticing in-game items to unlock rewards. And what is worrying is that all industry experts predict that Apex Legends will even do better - or shall I say worse!!

Spending a few pounds here and there gives players a confidence boost after being killed. Buoyed up by the new accessories you’re ready to get back in the game (when otherwise you might have quit). And so begins the ‘compulsion loop’.

Increasingly games have ‘bingo style’, ‘pack opening’ and ‘loot box’ elements labelled by many as ‘“simulated gambling”. Developers restrict gameplay to make it harder to move on until you win the right loot box reward or make another microtransaction.

Ultimately, F2P games aim to create long-term relationships with users in what is widely referred to as the ‘retention rate’ (although arguably it should be called the ‘addiction rate’). Players that enjoy the game enough will pay to get a competitive advantage and the game's success is measured by this retention metric. And for the consumer it all adds up; frequently putting a strain on both finances and mental well-being.

This trend towards exploiting addictive tendencies has seen governments begin to crack down. The Chinese government views Loot boxes as being too close to gambling and has restricted the number of games available.

In 2018, Belgium also made loot boxes illegal and in violation of their gambling legislation and 15 gambling regulators in Europe, the US and Australia have them under review. The UK government is following suit, conducting an inquiry into “immersive and addictive technologies” with a focus on AR and VR, gaming and esports. The inquiry will consider digital addiction, and how game design contributes to it, as well as the links between gaming, eSports and gambling. And last year the World Health Organization went so far as to classify ‘gaming disorder’ in its official addictions diagnosis guidelines.

Enticing players to play more or pay more to open loot boxes daily in the hope of giving them the edge is not a positive entertaining experience. It’s a gambling experience.

So, what’s the answer to stopping this tidal wave of game addiction?

In my opinion, we need to create games designed to entertain players, not to make them so hooked that they can’t stop. Frustratingly, many key figures within the video game industry, including the CEO of EA in 2018, refuse to acknowledge that loot boxes and similar tools being employed are gambling tactics.

Unless drastic changes are made, it seems inevitable that further scrutiny will mean enforced gambling-like regulations. There’s also likely to be a growing revolt from society against the damaging effects of gaming screen time.

So please, let's stop polluting our industry and make a positive change now that will revert video games back to their original purpose; fun.

Valerie Bozzetto has recently become a Board trustee of YGAM. YGAM is a UK Registered Charity with a social purpose to inform, educate and safeguard young people against problematic gambling or social gaming.

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