The video game industry suffers from an uncomfortable balance. On one hand, it's a business, and the best way to make money is to keep players playing. On the other are the methods that go into getting people playing -- and paying. From the bottom-feeding tactics of Zynga's FarmVille to the more subtle methods we see in MMOs through cash shops and microtransactions, studios are employing a variety of mind games to nudge players to open their wallets.
It's one thing to market to adults, who (in theory) are mature enough to make wise decisions on how much to spend on gaming. But kids are a growing percentage of the playerbase and might not be as savvy when it comes to smart spending. NPR took a look at the marketing side of gaming, in an article called How video games are getting inside your head -- and wallet. It raises some meaningful questions about video games and children, which we'll look at in this week's MMO Family.
Good game or sneaky sales pitch?
The crux of the NPR article is that there's a war going on between game companies and parents over children's video game playtime. More and more children are playing games online, and that includes traditional kid-friendly MMOs and multiplayer console games. Because these venues are online, game companies can track what a player does and tweak the game to make it even more appealing. Wargaming's game economist Ramin Shokrizade describes this scenario, saying, "At this point, every major gaming company worldwide either has in place a fully developed business intelligence unit or they're in the process of building one."
In short, the data that game companies collect are used to get players to play longer, have more fun, and ideally, spend more money.
Morality of mind games
Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed when it comes to marketing video games to children? After all, games are just another form of entertainment, and game companies need to make money. But video games can be much more compelling than other traditional forms of media, so much that kids (and adults) immerse themselves too deeply into the game. Should game companies bear some of that responsibility?
The NPR article quoted one mother who tried to curb her child's play sessions, and the result was tears. She was understandably bothered by the fact that her child was crying and basically preferred playing a video game to an outdoor activity like tennis or golf. Good games do cause us to have an emotional reaction, but that emotional link can become so strong that it causes a player to choose to stay in the virtual world and forego the real one. For children, who are in the process of understanding their world and developing emotionally, this can be a troubling problem.
Parents are also trying to wrap their heads around the concept of spending money on virtual goods. At the front of any toy store, there's a big rack of game cards that award in-game currency in a variety of video games. The article quotes a parent named John Davidson, who works in the game industry but wrestles with the idea of his kids spending money on virtual goods. His children play Clash of Clans, the highest-grossing app in the Apple store, and while he admires the Supercell team's success, he isn't comfortable with his kids spending a lot of money in the game, even though he can see how much enjoyment they get out of it.
We explored this very issue last year, and since then, the stigma attached to purchasing a virtual item hasn't really changed. Many parents would prefer that their children spend money on a tangible item instead of a virtual one. But what if that item ends up gathering dust in a closet just a week later? And is a virtual item different from purchasing and downloading music or a movie? You can't physically touch either of them, yet they still provide hours of enjoyment.
Of course, the real problem is that kids are more likely to buy without thinking because they haven't yet acquired an understanding of the value of money. Two dollars can quickly balloon to over a thousand, and in just a few minutes the little Dannys of the world have maxed out Mom and Dad's credit card. It was once so easy for kids to spend like a drunken sailor in Apple's Appstore that the company was forced to pay out a settlement to tapped-out families and tighten up security and permissions in the store. Game companies want to make it easy to spend money, but because purchasing is often built right into the framework of the game, kids often don't even realize they just made a purchase -- they think they're still playing the game.
And of course, there's an existential battle between parents and children over screen time limits. In the NPR article, one mother chose to pull the plug completely during the school week because her attempt to limit game sessions to 30 minutes actually made things worse. As she put it, "He couldn't think about doing his homework. He couldn't think about walking the dog or helping in any other way because he couldn't get his mind off the idea that he had 30 minutes coming. Once he knew there was nothing, he didn't think about it during the week and he almost -- maybe I'm not objective -- but he almost seemed relieved."
The problem is that video games, and MMOs in particular, are open-ended, so there's no firm stopping point to mark game sessions. And many children are getting hands-on time with computers and tablets at a very early age. One recent poll estimated that a third of children begin to use tablets and mobile phones when they're toddlers and learn to use them even before they can talk or walk. As technology becomes more accessible and easy to use, more and more kids are racking up the screen time (and clashing with their parents as a result).
The NPR article is a valuable reminder that technology and video games have both improved so rapidly that we're only beginning to catch up with it and understand its effects, particularly on children. Parents have to make decisions on how to fit gaming into family life, and the issues above are just a few that need to be considered along the way.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.