Keep Asking Why
Game Monetization - A Symptom of Wider Problems in our Society and World.
In light of this paragraph in my account blog admin - I promise I will be more focused on games - but it's not easy for me to stay on track sometimes:
"Gamasutra's Member and Expert Blogs are intended to be used for posts about the art and business of making games. Please read and follow our basic Gamasutra blogging guidelines here. Bloggers who violate these policies could have their posts deleted or, in the case of egregious or frequent violations, have their posting privileges revoked."
Many people like to look at games and study their mechanics within the context of other games. But what about the bigger picture?
For example, when you study a book, let's say Moby Dick. How do you interpret the motivations of certain characters? Some characters' motivations are rather ambiguous. Take Captain Ahab. Why does he want to kill the whale so bad? I mean, sure, he took your leg, but it's just a stupid whale for god’s sake. Only by looking at the author's life and his personal opinions can you fully understand the character of Captain Ahab. It turns out that Herman Melville (the author of Moby Dick) was on a whale ship as a young man and he deserted - presumably because of problems with the ship's leadership - its captain. He also participated in a mutiny on a merchant ship. It seems like he had a lot of problems with authority figures. He spent time among "savages" of the era and came to form a positive opinion of them. Hence the character of Queequeg - Ishmael's trusty savage sidekick.
Now this isn't a literature discussion, but suffice it to say, you can learn a lot about a book by studying the author's life - by continually asking "why?" and looking at the bigger picture. The same goes for trends in video games.
If people are increasingly participating in monetized gaming and companies are responding to that demand - and are encouraging this behavior - why is this happening? Whether or not it is good or bad - right or wrong - Why is it happening?
I have a theory why:
Gaming used to be something that only a small portion of the population participated in. Mainly these people would probably be categorized as "nerds". Now the thing about "nerds" is: they don't care too much about what other people think of them. It's hard to care what people think about you when your Dungeons and Dragons group is ridiculed by the rest of society.
Now that gaming has become more mainstream - the makeup of the gaming community has changed dramatically. Now you have a lot of people who actually care what other people think of them. You’ve got a lot of "cool" kids playing video games now.
Now what makes a kid "cool"? Well, if your good at sports or you’re good looking - you could be categorized as cool. But look a little bit deeper. What do cool kids tend to have in common?
They all have nice cars.
I mean what's the best way to pick up chicks? You drive around in your Ferrari.
What's the best way to get into a good guild? - Well, you’ve got to have nice gear.
So your in-game items are status symbols. Do true nerds buy in game items with real money? They didn't used to. They didn't used to care what other people thought of them. That's why they drive beat up station wagons and vespas. They respect the game for what it is: a game. But things are changing for nerds. Nerds loved getting good gear and showing it off in the past - but once you can just buy it - it doesn't make sense. Their sense of escape from the world that ridicules them starts to lose its luster.
But let's take it one step further - and this is where I might start to lose people.
Why do so many people care about status symbols?
Why, when a young woman sees a Ferrari, does she immediately get a tingle in her region?
Why, when a young man sees a Camero, does he get a feeling of jealousy?
Why, when a Farmville gamer sees a $42 "Unwither Ring" or a $1000 Titan in Eve Online, does he get a raging e-peen?
What do these things represent?
This is what they represent:
The almighty dollar.
And let's take it even further. What does money represent?
Money represents security, success, acceptance, both economically and socially and probably also politically.
Why does money represent success?
Money determines what kind of healthcare you can get. It determines what kind of college you can send your kids to. It determines whether or not you can afford to reproduce and have children.
But let's backtrack a bit. Do people who buy status symbols have a lot of money? Well, it depends on what kind of status symbols. Ferrari's are very expensive - if you see a Ferrari - that person is probably rich. Mustangs are cool, if your 16, but they don't cost that much more than a minivan - but at least they are functional.
What about a $42 "Ring of Unwivering" in Farmville? They certainly are a rather disposable expense. Certainly not a basic necessity. Do they indicate that you are a wealthy, secure, successful person? I don’t think so. But I will leave that up to you to decide. I personally think Mustangs and Ferraris are overly priced modes of transportation – but hey – that’s just me - I'm just a nerd.
So, it seems to me that microtransactions and in-game purchases are exploiting peoples' innate cultural instinct to acquire status symbols - which allows them to attract mates and form social bonds.
And to finish off: Why do people want to attract mates and form social bonds? The answer: Evolution - both cultural and physical. The theory of evolution says that the people who reproduce will have their traits passed on and the people who don't reproduce will not. People who can attract mates and form social bonds are more likely to reproduce. So the people and culture that exists today places a great amount of emphasis on status symbols.
How do these ideas help you as a game designer to exploit people's innate cultural desires? They don’t really – at least not in any way I know of. This is just a general discussion. I am simply trying to recognize why this is happening. But if you could find a way to market your game better - to explain to people whether or not it is a nerd's game or a cool guy's game - you might be able to keep your customers happier.
So in conclusion, microtransactions and in-game real money markets are not part of some conspiracy to monetize games. They are a response to the increasing mainstream-ness of video games. Basically, society has brought some of its problems into our nerd sanctuary and publishers are taking the opportunity to make some more money off of these less frugal newcomers.
In my next blog post, I want to talk about whether or not the mainstream-ness of video games is a good or a bad thing for nerds.