You may need to be 18 for slot machines, but there’s nothing stopping your nine-year-old from downloading a gacha game.

First there were collectible card games (CCGs) like Magic: The Gathering or Pokémon. Next came digital CCGs, popularised when Blizzard Entertainment released 2014’s Hearthstone.

The economy of Hearthstone is much like other CCGs. The player purchases a pack of cards for a set price without knowing what cards are inside. You may unbox that sought-after legendary card or just a few “trash commons” (to use card game lingo). As you can tell, it’s much like gambling.

To this day I’m embarrassed to admit how much I spent in Hearthstone over the years I played it. I don’t have an exact figure but suffice to say the numbers are probably in the thousands. Every new pack, bundle or limited-time deal was purchased with the promise of making my play experience richer, deeper and more enjoyable, but after that initial rush of excitement, I was usually left feeling empty.

Inevitably, I wouldn’t get all the cards I was hoping for, which propelled me to spend more money in a hobby that was slowly transforming from being a game to becoming almost a second job.

I told myself that to get the most out of my experience, I needed to grind every quest, unlock every piece of bonus content and acquire every card. Ironically, I was having far less fun with a collection in the thousands than I had when I was a newbie with only a few dozen cards.

Gacha or loot boxes

Of course, Hearthstone is but one example of the new gaming landscape. Loot boxes (a mystery box containing a set of unknown items of varying quality/value) are everywhere and just about every successful game uses them.

Some are innocuous, such as Blizzard’s team-based shooter Overwatch that used loot boxes to reward players with cosmetic items. Others are more insidious, such as the popular “gacha game” Raid: Shadow Legends, which has become notorious for the predatory way it bombards users with numerous currencies, time-gated events and an ever-rotating series of bundles that obscure their true value.

In fact, Plarium, the developer behind Raid: Shadow Legends has an article explaining their philosophy behind the game’s design. The “gacha” mechanic encourages players to spend currency to receive in-game items in the same way a poker machine entices its player to continue inserting chips or money.

Games like Raid: Shadow Legends, AFK Arena, Genshin Impact, Epic Seven and more dress up their game mechanics to obscure what they truly are. These games are designed not for people who may spend a few dollars—they’re specifically created to suck in a certain type of person. Often referred to as “whales”, these are the long-term customers whose addiction results in thousands of dollars spent over their gaming lifetime.

It should then come as no surprise that Plarium was, in 2017, acquired by Australian company Aristocrat for US$500 million, a corporation whose business is in making gaming experiences for casinos. This is just one example of game development companies shifting away from creating singular, self-contained experiences in favour of “live service” games that generate revenue on an ongoing basis.

A growing addiction

If you thought my having spent hundreds of dollars in Hearthstone was shameful (and I do), imagine the reality of the millions of gamers worldwide who fall for the underhanded tricks these companies pull in order to entice them.

Most don’t see that they’re being manipulated—and for good reason—the most successful games obfuscate their true nature behind clever systems and addictive gameplay loops. To make matters worse, games like these are not regulated like casinos and clubs are, which means that players are exposed to these predatory practices at a much younger age than ever before.

You may need to be 18 to go to the slot machine section of your local club, but there’s nothing stopping your nine-year-old from downloading a gacha game, thinking it’s simply a cool fantasy game about heroes and dragons.

There’s a lot that needs to be done to ensure not only the safety of our youngest gamers but also those with addictive personalities.

Please let it not be said I’m asserting that every modern game is predatory—far from it! There are thousands of excellent titles on the market today made by people with a genuine passion for gaming who have dedicated their professional life to making engaging and enjoyable experiences for their players.

Three questions for your kid

What we need to do is not dismiss gaming altogether, but become wiser when evaluating game mechanics. If you’re a parent, here are three questions you can ask your child about the games they’re playing:

1. Does the game push multiple in-game currencies?

Games that are honest about their business model have no issue in transparently advertising the value you’ll receive if you choose to spend real-world money. Games that hide the value proposition behind multiple currencies make it difficult for players to get a sense of how much they’re getting for their buck, thus making it far more likely that they will spend more than they should.

2. Does the game gate power behind purchases?

Many games offer cosmetic upgrades for real-world money. Marvel Snap and Legends of Runeterra, for example, only offer cosmetic items for real-world money. Games that gate power behind a paywall—either to incentivise players to skip content they’d otherwise have to spend time grinding out or giving a straight-up advantage to players who spend real money over players who don’t—should be questioned.

3. Does the game make you constantly feel underpowered?

A key motivator for player engagement is the feeling of progress. Feeling like you’re getting stronger as a result of continued play keeps players engaged longer. Diablo Immortal recently nerfed (reduced the power level of) multiple character classes in-game seemingly to either force players to spend more time in-game or purchase upgrades to skip ahead. Predatory games limit progression so that when the player is presented with the means to circumvent it, they’re in a much more vulnerable state and thus more easily manipulated.

Game . . . with boundaries

Thankfully, governments around the world are starting to crack down harder on companies who use these predatory business practices, but it is up to us to spot the signs of addiction in the people in our circles of influence.

It’s important when dealing with any kind of addiction to treat the person with kindness, not judgement. These aren’t just our kids—they’re our spouse, our aunty, our dad, our friend. No-one is exempt from addiction and anyone can be fooled, no matter how intelligent or well-informed they are.

The reality is these games are designed to manipulate our basest human emotions. Standing up to predatory practices not only means a better quality of life for those susceptible to addiction, but also for the millions of people around the world who enjoy gaming as a hobby.

This is an edited excerpt from the Signs of the Times article, “The casino inside your phone“.

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