The Ethics of the Candy Crush Pusher

The free-to-play video game business model depends on the deep addiction of people like Chris, who spent his entire savings playing a game that most people play for zero dollars. 

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The free-to-play video game business model depends on the deep addiction of people like Chris, who spent his entire savings playing a game that most people play for zero dollars. These people also known as "whales" single handedly support the business model of games like Team Fortress 2, which sell themselves as "free" games but charge for extras — just like Candy Crush Saga or Tap Fish, as documented by The Daily Show. Spending money, from $20 to $5,000, in these games is easy, as chronicled by various addicts. But in a gripping, detailed account from Gamasutra's Mike Rose raises a question for those making these addictive casual games: is it unethical?

Rose spoke with various "whales" he found who had spent more than their means on free games "I'm in a position where I'm living paycheck to paycheck for the moment as the result of that spending -- beyond incurring overdraft for my rent (for a few months in a row starting in January this year and a couple other scattered times)," said one gamer, Kyle.

The spending sounds like its tied to some sort of addiction — for these people it's not about winning, per se. Kyle, for example, was hoping to get a certain "keys" in the hopes of getting a specific, "unusual" item that he just liked. Chris said he did it just to "feel a bit richer" than I really am. "I might have an older car and a bit of a run down apartment, but online I've got all this nice swag that lots of people aren't willing to spend on. It's a nice way to make yourself feel special."

In fact, addiction is built into these games with what's called "coercive monetization," according to a separate Gamasutra article. For example, many free-to-play games have their own currencies, which makes buying things a lot easier. "Research has shown that putting even one intermediate currency between the consumer and real money, such as a 'game gem' (premium currency), makes the consumer much less adept at assessing the value of the transaction," writes Ramin Shokrizade. Games like Candy Crush arguably use these methods and certain games, like Battlefield Heroes, have attempted to perfect this model so that people buy more.

"F2P games are essentially similar to slot machines in their game design: they cater for a very specific narrow 'zone' of engaging play, and make you pay to enjoy it, incrementally," Miguel Sicart, author of The Ethics of Computer Games, told The Atlantic Wire. These companies hire psychologists to build "sticky" games that the consumer will spend as much money and time as possible on them.

Still, it's hard to say how unethical the whole thing is. If you think about it, these game makers are acting like any rational company, noted Karen Schrier, assistant professor of media art at Marist College. "Any company wants people to crave their product. They're profit-making entities," she said. Many companies use behavioral or psychological techniques to get consumers to spend more. Think of grocery stores stocking their shelves in a certain way, for example.

Indeed, game makers defend the practice by saying that it brings in revenue and creates jobs — the games are free after-all. If the games weren't free and didn't have these "coercive monetization tactics," these people would spend those dollars on buying the actual games, arguably. Then the whole thing wouldn't seem so wrong would it?

On the other hand, just because everyone does it, doesn't make it right. Sicart think its absolutely unethical. "Ethics is the philosophical branch that gives us a language and tools to think about how to live a good life, not harming others and fulfilling our potential," he said. "These monetization strategies do none of those. As I see it, games designed around this monetization strategy seldom contribute to what many other games do, which is enriching our lives and our ways of engaging with the world." Also, not all companies feed on the pathologies of addiction to increase profits.

But the creator of Battlefield Heroes doesn't believe these spending habits have anything to do with addiction. "I believe that the responsibility to control spending on any product or service lies with the consumer, unless there is some scientifically proven link to addiction as is the case with products and services like alcohol and gambling," Cousins told Rose. "When these links are established, I feel industries should self-govern first and if they fail to act responsibly, be subject to governmental control."

He's not alone: Video game addiction is well-documented, though not officially recognized by the mental health bible the DSM. Instead it falls under "Internet pathologies." Some experts call it more of a compulsion than an addiction. Still, one of the symptoms is spending more money on games. And researchers are starting to see the link with gambling. "The one question I am constantly asked is why people pay real money for virtual items in games like FarmVille. As someone who has studied slot machine players for over 25 years, the similarities are striking," one psychologist told Rose.

Even if it doesn't fall under the technical definition of addiction, the set-up is still problematic, says Sicart. "When a game is designed to create a shallow but rewarding compulsion loop, and makes the player pay to stay in the zone where that compulsion is satisfying, then I think some problems arise, regardless of this activity being addiction or not."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.