The bigger picture of the problem
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 July 2013, 1:01 pm
Earlier this month Gamasutra had a very long post about the ethics of Free2Play games, exploring the stories of individuals who spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars on those games and then had problems paying their rent. Funnily enough their first example was about a guy buying hats in Team Fortress 2, so much for the theory that this is a Pay2Win problem. They did mention that actually other business models like buy to play weren't necessarily any more ethical. But in my opinion they missed a major point of the problem, presumably because it is a truth that would endanger sites like Gamasutra themselves.

To explain what I mean, I'd like you to read some other news stories and compare them to the Gamasutra article. For example about the man who lost his live savings in a carnival game. It is easy to see that fundamentally this is the same story as somebody losing his savings in a Free2Play game. But it is obvious that the tone of the two stories is very different: Gamasutra basically blames the games, while the other story has an undertone of "look at that idiot" and blames the player. The reality, as so often, lies in the middle: The games, whether online or at the carnival, are definitely designed to get people to spend money. But most people are very well aware of that, and it takes an unusual amount of stupidity and lack of self-control to end up spending your life savings. Take ANYTHING one can possibly waste money on, and you'll find a similar story somewhere.

Even more important is a comparison with yet another news story, that of the Korean couple letting their baby starve to death while caring for virtual child. This isn't a story about money at all, it is about time. But the basic structure of the story again is the same: Players waste a limited resource (time or money) on a game, to the point where the lack of that resource for real life causes a real problem.

What is important to realize here is that albeit time and money are limited resources, we all tend to have some disposable income as well as some disposable time, to different degrees. We always "waste" a certain amount of our time and our money. And ultimately it doesn't matter on what hobby we spend that time and money, as long as it comes from the "disposable" pool. Where the real danger lies is spending either time or money you don't actually have available, because you would need it for something far more important in real life.

Many gamers are young, and feel the constraints of limited money more than those of limited time. So a story that a gamer spent $2,000 on a game creates attention, while everybody considers it normal that he also spent 2,000 hours of his time in that game. But objectively the 2,000 hours might well be worth more, even if the guy would just be flipping burgers. The fact that the gamer can't pay his rent due to the $2,000 spending makes it into a Gamasutra post, while nobody writes about the effect that 2,000 hours of playing games instead of working or studying has on the guy's future.

If we were to look at the ethics of online games, we would be better served by looking at both aspects, people spending too much money as well as people spending too much time. But a site like Gamasutra would never do that, because they are built on that false premise that "games are important". It is exactly that trap which I would consider unethical, developing games with an illusion that whatever you can reach in that game is something important worth spending much time and money on. That illusionary elevation of games to a status where some people consider them to be more important than many things in their real life is the real danger and ethical problem. And it is independent of the business model, because somebody falling for the illusion will spend whatever resource to get ahead in the game, even if he should spend that time and that money more wisely on something real.

For somebody who has a good grip of reality and who considers games to be just another form of entertainment, no game or business model poses much of a problem. But if we point a finger at the "ethics of Free2Play games" and say that they are dangerous for those who are less stable in real life, we need to consider people spending time unwisely as much as we need to consider people spending money unwisely. There are a lot of real-life problems somebody could solve for himself if he spent those thousands of hours and all that energy on solving his problems instead of chasing after the next dopamine high in a video game. Making this only about money is missing the bigger picture of the problem.
Tobold's Blog

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