Gaming, Gambling, and the Ethics of In-App Purchases

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5 months ago by Sophie Stones

Gaming, Gambling, and the Ethics of In-App Purchases

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No matter how grownup we might like to think we are, we’re all big kids at heart and whether that comes out in the form of Candy Crush or Crash Bandicoot more of us than ever are choosing to fill our spare time with gaming. In fact, the UK games industry is currently worth £5.7bn, with the global worth increasing 10.9% over 2017 to $134.9bn. However, as with all things, greater usage comes with greater concerns and world leaders are now pressuring gaming companies into sufficiently researching what harmful effects may come from sustained use of games.

These effects have been debated by experts, by journalists and by medical professionals for the past few years and run from the quantifiable, like debts run up through in-app purchases, to the harder to prove mental health effects of violence-based games. In the past game developers have attempted to shift any responsibility by attaching parental guidance warnings but now that China’s tech giant, TenCent have tightened their policies, it’s become harder for companies in the west to ignore any culpability.

TenCent have kept their focus upon the younger generations, checking identities against police databases and limiting children under 12 to one hour of play a day. This is in response to concerns surrounding mental development and impaired eyesight. However, parents may have other things to worry about also. There’s been a recent bout of articles concerning British parents who’ve been drained of their money and their patience, as kids have either intentionally or accidentally gotten past price walls to spend as much as thousands on in-app purchases.

These purchases have been compounded by the introduction of ‘loot boxes’, in which you pay for randomized contents, but which have been compared to gambling, with Belgium and the Netherlands already classifying them as such. However, whilst a recent UK study claimed they were part of a growing child gambling problem, the UK has failed to act, instead agreeing with the Vice President of EA Games that they are similar to Kinder Eggs.

Games Journalist Ryan Brown however disagrees, stating that "You open a Kinder Egg and you expect a toy - and you get a toy. With a loot box, you're hoping for something special. It is a lot more than just a throwaway toy. It's something people aspire to have."

This was just one of the things which Epic Games, the makers of hugely popular video game, Fortnite, were quizzed about in June when they met with Parliaments Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Their answers however fell short of answering Prince Harry’s concerns that the game should be banned due to it being “created to addict”. Fortnite, which whilst rated for players 12 and up, doesn’t ask users for their ages in-game, say they also don’t track users’ times on the game, however increased gaming times are becoming a concern for some.

Statistics show that over 200 divorces in the UK from January-September 2018 mentioned addiction to Fortnite and other online games, as reasons for relationships breaking down. Whilst Game Quitters, an online forum made up of 1000s of ‘ex-gamers’ who quit after their personal lives took a hit, is thriving more every day.

Possibly due to these increases, the World Health Organisation classified ‘gaming addiction’ as a disorder last year, however there are some who feel this demonizes healthy gaming and that it is the symptom rather than the cause of mental health problems. Johnny Chiodini, the star of Low Batteries, a Youtube series which looks at gaming and mental health, details upon his channel how gaming has helped him to provide a distraction for his internal monologue, in much the same way people may use Yoga or Pilates.

When it comes to these issues, there is anecdotal evidence from both sides to suggest gaming is both healthy and unhealthy, however as addiction therapists like Harley Streets, Adam Cox, are registering more and more people every month, is there more we could be doing to protect our children? And is it the responsibility of the parents? Or the programmers?