Psychologist Warns Against The Dangers of Free-To-Play Games

Games aren’t just things we play to amuse ourselves, they can also be powerful psychological devices. They are designed to make people feel good by rewarding competency. But this can have a downside…

In a recent Game Developer Conference session “Gaming, Gambling or Addiction: F2P Scientific and Legal Perspectives” psychiatrist Tyler Black and his legal expert brother Ryan Black looked at how free-to-play games might face future legislation, due to the potentially damaging methods they use to try to compel players to play more and to buy in-game items.

The brothers stressed that they are lifelong gamers and that they believe self-regulation would be more beneficial to game-makers and to consumers than government involvement.

Tyler Black, medical director, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency Unit at British Columbia Children’s Hospital, said that games trigger desires that can sometimes be difficult to control. Some behaviors, like excessive gambling or compulsive sexual activity, are based on relatively harmless activities that become harmful to the addict through over-use. Black said that gaming falls into this category. He added that he has treated children and young people for addiction to games.

The addiction is based on a desire for rewards. Most games offer fixed rewards, like points for scoring or upgrade economies for good play. Other games offer variable rewards, such as loot drops and rare spawn items, that are more like jackpot wins, and that’s where the issue lies as these types of rewards can foster compulsion and addiction.

“Psychologically, the rarer the reward, the harder it is to stop the behavior,” he said, adding that it is a kind of conditioning, not unlike Ivan Pavlov’s experiments. “It doesn’t matter if you say this is good or bad,” said Black. “But the fact is, video games definitely shape behavior.” Game designers try to make the feedback “as exciting and rewarding as possible.”

He added that this can lead to “unhealthy behavior,” especially among children, whose brains are still developing. Kids are not good at making sound judgments or at resisting urges for instant gratification. “Children are fantastic at adapting and learning, but that also means they are easy to deceive and can make bad decisions,” he said.

Black believes that game companies can mitigate against promoting unhealthy behavior through some basic design methods. Games that include some element of chance should feature a clear indication of the odds of winning. They should offer a consumer-friendly returns policy. They should also include cues about the real world that discourage extended periods of play, as well as the ability for parents to restrict play hours.

Free-to-play games should also include an easy-to-find guide for parents and they should include features that self-exclude players who have no intention of buying micro-transactions, or who are parents wishing to protect their kids from in-game marketing.

But the real question is, will they? This type of design changes could deter people from playing their game, thus affecting the bottom line.

Ryan Black, a partner and co-chair at McMillan, specializing in technology, spoke about how some of the ideas his brother had suggested were already being passed into law, or are on the books in various countries. He said that all behaviors have their upsides and downsides, and that governments all over the world always find ways to legislate on entertainment forms. Gambling, for example, is restricted in most countries.

He said that demonstrating sensible self-regulation, as the game industry had done with ESRB ratings, would help to push back legislation that might be onerous or have unexpected repercussions.

Tyler Black concluded by saying that game designers should take responsibility for the power of their products to envelope impressionable minds. “It’s not a great idea to reward compulsion, instead of rewarding fun and challenge,” he said.

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