Why Microtransactions Are a Cancer to Gaming

“All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves, is buying shit. What, I have a dream? The peak of our dreams is a new app for our Dopple, it doesn’t exist! It’s not even there! We buy shit that isn’t there!”

– Bing, Black Mirror

Microtransactions, or exchanges of real-life currency for in-game assets such as cosmetic items, weapons, or gear pieces, are a cancer to gaming, and they’re spreading faster than we can get rid of them. This is demonstrated by the ongoing “Reddit versus EA” debacle, which began on November 12, 2017 when a Reddit user complained that despite purchasing the Deluxe Edition of Star Wars Battlefront II (2017) for US $80, they still could not play as Darth Vader. One would expect to play as this hallmark Star Wars character in their Star Wars video game, yet you need to spend a substantial amount of time (approximately 40 hours) grinding just to unlock even the most basic characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, or Rey.

A PR representative of EA wrote a comment on the Reddit user’s post that essentially defended the overinflated time spent to unlock characters by asserting that it promotes a “sense of pride and accomplishment.” This response was an obvious sugarcoat over the fact that the progression system in Star Wars Battlefront II, including its design and design philosophy, is solely intended to incentivize players to spend money on microtransactions so that they will not have to spend as much time grinding for their preferred characters. The comment was therefore downvoted over 670,000 times—the most downvotes in Reddit’s history—and snowballed into an unprecedented amount of community backlash that in effect prompted EA to lower the cost of credits to unlock a character by 75%.

UPDATE: As of November 16, which is conspicuously right before the game releases, EA has suspended Battlefront 2’s star cards until further notice.

Even if Battlefront II was completely devoid of its exploitative microtransactions (which it never will be), I still wouldn’t purchase the game because I am not a fan of the Star Wars universe. Nonetheless, I felt I had to speak up on the matter because microtransactions are ruining much of what I love about video games, from that sense of “pride and accomplishment” I feel upon completing a difficult challenge to working towards a goal that I would otherwise be unable to reach if I lazily spent my money just to cut a few corners.

Take, for instance, the Vidmaster achievements in Halo 3: ODST (2009), which, if unlocked, would grant players access to a highly-coveted gear set—Recon—that was previously exclusive to Bungie employees. The Vidmaster challenges were no easy feat and, might I add, a living nightmare if you and your teammates kept screwing up. Three challenges that stood out to me the most were Annual, Endure, and Deja Vu.

For Annual, you and three other players needed to complete the last mission in Halo 3 with the Iron skull active, which made it so that if one player died, the whole team needed to restart the entire mission! In addition, Annual required that everyone must finish the mission in Ghosts, and not in Warthogs. For Endure (the widely regarded most frustrating of the three), four players needed to pass the 4th set, or the 60th wave, in Heroic Firefight on any mission of their choosing. This could take up to four hours depending on if you were careful. At a minimum, the achievement would take ninety minutes depending on if you were feeling risky. Finally, for Deja vu, four players needed to complete the Halo 3: ODST mission “Coastal Highway,” again with the Iron skull active and without using Warthogs or Scorpion Tanks.

To that end, to attempt to unlock a Vidmaster achievement was to set yourself up for unfathomably soul-crushing disappointment, disillusionment, and frustration. Can you imagine how you would feel after playing through Coastal Highway for two hours with your good buddies and successfully reaching the end of the mission only to die from something stupid like a plasma grenade to the face, screwing it up for everyone else? On the contrary, can you imagine the level of pride, satisfaction, and bliss you would feel if you actually managed to complete all seven of these daunting achievements that the average Joe would give up on because he doesn’t have any faith in himself?

The pain and anguish you felt from failing a Vidmaster challenge versus the extreme ecstasy you felt from overcoming it means that you knew exactly what someone in a multiplayer lobby had to go through to acquire a full set of Recon armor. If you, too, were lucky enough to acquire Recon, you had every excuse in the book to say, “I sweat, I bled, and I cried, but in the end, I did it.” That’s something you cannot say when you circumvent all of that hard work by simply purchasing a piece of gear via a microtransaction, because saying “I did it” is not the same thing as saying “I paid for it.”

But it appears that circumventing hard work by purchasing a microtransaction is about the only option you have if you want to deck out your video game character in 2017. In cases that affect gameplay, you’re forced to either arduously grind for hundreds of hours or spend hard-earned cash just to gain a modicum of an advantage over your opponents. Halo 5: Guardians (2015) is a perfect example of this: all progression is based on “requisition packs” that are purchasable via in-game credits or real-life currency, and net you pieces of gear, weapons, emblems, stances, and assassination animations of varying rarities. The catch is that premium REQ packs aren’t guaranteed to net you that weapon you’ve always wanted, as it’s all based on a random number generator (unlike Halo 3 or Reach). You could therefore spend hundreds of dollars on gold-tier REQ packs, and even then, you won’t have unlocked everything the game has to offer.  Sure, Guardians isn’t by definition “pay to win,” but it doesn’t have to be to ruin the multiplayer experience.

Overall, microtransactions akin to Battlefront’s star cards or Halo 5’s REQ packs make publishers oodles of money, so they won’t magically disappear all because of a few hundred thousand downvotes on Reddit—we have to discipline ourselves into not purchasing them, too. Until sales numbers reflect our frustrations, this greedy and insidious business model will become so prevalent that one day, a $60 game will cost you $500.

Are Multiplayer Videogames Dehumanizing?

“To rend one’s enemies is to see them not as equals, but objects—hollow of spirit and meaning.”

―Destiny (2014), In-game description of Exotic weapon Thorn

Thorn used to be one of the most loathed Exotic weapons in all of Destiny’s multiplayer. The Hand Cannon was so detestable that people felt offended whenever they were killed by it, complaining that it was a “noob’s weapon” that took no real skill to use. They would send you hate messages, rant about it on the forums, and even use the weapon itself to stoop to the level of its offenders. You would know when you were killed by Thorn, too, as getting hit by it twice to the head or three times to the body would cause your screen to turn into a mucky greenish color while your character slowly died from the weapon’s damage over time effect.

Bungie’s Hell spawn that was the Thorn was unarguably the most obnoxious weapon to ever plague the fronts of competitive multiplayer, but I couldn’t help but think that this obnoxious quality was what made it so enjoyable to use in the first place. During the five months when Thorn was in its prime, the time when everyone used the weapon to their sadistic pleasure, I too derived profound enjoyment from the poison effects and inevitable slow and humiliating deaths that would follow.

The widespread abuse of the Thorn brought to mind a broader question regarding the nature of online competition: do multiplayer videogames unknowingly cause people to lose touch with their more compassionate sides? In other words, do they diffuse empathy to where people become indifferent to the pain experienced by their virtual opponents?

Multiplayer videogames practically dominate the market right now—Halo, Battlefield, Call of Duty, TitanfallDestiny, and Overwatch are among the most popular and widely recognizable of the bunch. To answer the question of whether these types of games decrease empathy and increase indifference, I inquired as to why they’re so popular and how they affect perceptions of human emotions beyond just the immaterial game world. I arrived at a couple of interesting conclusions.

First, multiplayer videogames have gained traction as both an entertainment medium and as a way of relieving stress because they satisfy a primitive urge to compete against and weed out the weaker members of our own species. They appeal to man’s darker qualities such as greed, selfishness, and aggression.

If you are unfamiliar with Skill-Based Matchmaking, the idea is that if you adjust matchmaking parameters enough so that weak players get matched up against other weak players, and the strong against the strong, you appeal to a more generalized audience of casual players and thus sell more copies of your game. From a business standpoint, this makes sense. However, SBMM is actually counterintuitive to the principles of intraspecies competition (competition that occurs within a species as opposed to between two species) since the strong will always prey on the weak. In evolutionary terms, this is comparable to killing a weaker member of your own hunting tribe just so you can eat that extra piece of meat and stay alive yourself. It’s an intrinsically motivated act of selfishness.

Another explanation for why people are so drawn to multiplayer videogames as an outlet for aggression is that, plain and simple, they don’t have to worry about the consequences of murdering people in cold blood. Think of it this way: when you defeat an opponent in a multiplayer match, to you they are nothing more than an avatar stripped of virtually all human qualities. They are a cheeky and elusive moving target, or a bundle of pixels generated by your television screen. They are a virtual punching bag that you can slam on, beat, stab, humiliate, demean, and degrade to your heart’s content, and all without a single consequence to bare. Who wouldn’t take sick pleasure in that? I know I certainly have.

Yet when we give it a second thought, we start to realize that in control of that avatar, that cheeky moving target, that bundle of pixels, is a real person. A living entity with thoughts, feelings, memories, goals, dreams, aspirations, and heartbreaks. Have you considered that, beyond all of that bloodshed and mass chaos in Battlefield’s “Conquest” mode, someone is feeling a little hurt, even if they’re thousands of miles away from you?

By now, you probably think this article is a glorified criticism of multiplayer videogames. It’s far from it. Personally, I’ve invested hundreds of hours into Halo Reach, Destiny, and the Modern Warfare series. I have no qualm with these games; I love them. At the same time, I do have a few regrets about how I’ve treated my opponents over the years. I have tea-bagged, viciously wailed on corpses, and shouted vile obscenities over the microphone. Even today I display these behaviors out of compulsion but not intent. Nonetheless, I’m writing this article to attest to how our treatment of strangers over the Internet, despite the anonymity, still matters and that we should practice better sportsmanship. Just because they live halfway across the world doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated any differently from you or me.

And so, coming back to the question of whether multiplayer videogames decrease empathy and increase indifference, the answer is yes they do, but only if our behavior is left unrestrained. We can easily lose touch with our compassion, but we also have to remember that we can activate it when it’s needed.

I think I’ll just stick to RPGs.