From time spent in certain game modes, to player damage with weapons, and how players move around maps, video game developers have had access to a wide range of telemetry data for years now. They’ve been using this data to refine the core feedback loops they use to keep players engaged and coming back for more, driving sales and improving player experiences. It’s clearly working too, with the US video game industry alone generating $108.4 billion in 2017.
A large section of this revenue is generated through micro-transactions – power ups or cosmetic items bought in game – either outright with your hard-earned cash or using in game currency generated through play. This is a concept many people are increasingly familiar with. Many people spend their morning commute playing Candy Crush on their phone, where the option to buy extra lives or special block busting abilities is paraded in front of you.
The genius of these games is not that they include a store, it is that the store is paired with well-designed difficulty loops. The game is designed to give the player a few easy levels where they begin to feel comfortable, followed by one that they can’t quite seem to get past, no matter how hard they try. With every failure, frustration builds, and the developer offers you an easy out for the price of a coffee. When viewed from this angle it’s easy to see why players turn to the in-game store in droves. After all, think of the rush you get from finally beating the level and moving on from Sugar Plum Village. Except of course, a few levels down the road the process repeats, and you find yourself drawn towards that store again.
This is fantastic for investors and executives, ever looking to make the company more profitable and increase returns, but the increased pressure for profit comes with a very human price. ‘Whales’ – as the industry calls them – are consumers willing to spend thousands of pounds on micro-transactions in their favourite games, sometimes at the expense of other areas of their lives. Unfortunately, they are not as rare as you might think. After all there are thousands of gambling addicts, and if you reread the previous paragraph pretending instead that it refers to fruit machines found in pubs, can you honestly say that they are very different?
This is something that has recently come to the fore in various European countries, most notably after the Belgian Gaming Commission began investigating the legality of so called ‘Loot Boxes’ in the game Star Wars: Battlefront 2. This was followed in February of this year by Hawaii, introducing legislation to limit the sale of games that include Loot Boxes to those over the age of 21, and the Netherlands, declaring some implementations of Loot Boxes to be illegal under the Betting and Gaming Act in April.
Loot Boxes are a method of micro transaction being pushed quite hard by some titans in the industry such as Electronic Arts (EA) who publish a wide range of incredibly popular games, ranging from the well-known FIFA franchise to The Sims. The idea is quite simple, you pay an upfront price for a randomised pack of in game items, be they new football players for your team as is the case in FIFA, or new weapons and characters in Star Wars: Battlefront 2. Certain items gained are better than others, but you won’t know if you have something good or not until you have bought and opened your loot box. The better the item is, the less likely it is to appear in your box, and so the more you have to buy in the hopes of finding that one item that you’re sure you need to crush your opponents.
The price of loot boxes, the frequency of items within them, and the effect they have on gameplay are all carefully calculated using data collected over years to ensure player engagement, retention, and spending. If the cost is too high, if the rarest items are spread too far apart, or if even the best items unbalance the game too much, then you run the risk of players turning their backs and finding new holes to throw their money into. Find that sweet spot though, and it’s possible to rake in money hand over fist. All of this has more and more government bodies sitting up and taking notice, and some in the industry fear that the aggressive push for more profit runs a risk of bringing this gravy train to a screeching halt.
Using flashing lights and the promise of a potential reward is a well-documented way to abuse the weakest parts of our nature. When this is combined with the sheer quantity of data available to fine tune the experience, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that what is a perfectly reasonable hobby to many is in fact a nightmare for some. Indoctrinating us into a gargantuan gambling machine is not the only way this method has been used though. Gamification, as it’s also known, has been put to great effect in the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of people.
Duolingo, a language learning app, utilises the same principles of data collection and feedback loops but leverages it to help users learn a new language. By breaking the language down into small sections, giving players badges as rewards for completing those sections, and counting the days in a row the user has used the app, they encourage people who might otherwise lose the motivation to learn a language to keep returning and improve themselves. Another fantastic example is the use of crowdsourcing to help scientists with their research, sometimes called Citizen Science. One of the earliest adopters of this method was a game called Foldit, released in 2008 by a team from The University of Washington. The game asked players to manipulate pieces of proteins in 3-D to create the most stable shape possible, with players being ranked by the scores calculated from their designs. These designs were used by the scientists to help solve real problems in the lab. Among other achievements, players have helped scientists solve the structure of M-PMV which is a crucial protein in HIV. They managed this within just 3 weeks, while scientists using traditional methods had been scratching their heads for more than a decade.
Given that without a major shift in our society, large organisations will continue to collect and utilise our data on ever growing scales, perhaps we shouldn’t be so caught up in asking who is using our data. Perhaps a more useful question would be what are they doing with it, asking if they are using it in the best way they could, and being more rigorous in holding them to account when they fail to do so.