Let’s Protect Our Crack Candy Addicts!

I played Candy Crush Saga for a little while but then got stuck at level 86 and completely stopped playing. I was surprised to learn that some older and ‘serious’ colleagues were playing it (a lot). King, the maker of Candy Crush Saga, is using a freemium or free-to-play (F2P) model to make money, lots of it, with more than 100 million people logging in every day for a fix of its games. Although I have never spent a cent on Candy Crush, some people do, since industry experts have estimated its revenues at $1 million to $3 million per day. King is currently offering 150 games and boasting more than a billion gameplays each day. The freemium model, where games are free but players can pay for add-ons or extra lives, has been around for a long time but companies are now becoming extremely adept at monetization.

One such tactic is to create an uncomfortable or undesirable state for the player and then offer her to pay to relieve that ‘pain’. For example, in Candy Crush, after 5 tries you have to wait 30 minutes before you can start again, but you can pay to continue playing. Coercive monetization is also used. ‘’A coercive monetization model depends on the ability to ‘trick’ a person into making a purchase with incomplete information, or by hiding that information such that while it is technically available, the brain of the consumer does not access that information. Hiding a purchase can be as simple as disguising the relationship between the action and the cost.” One example is to use in-game virtual currency to dissociate that relationship. This is the same effect as with people who buy more with a credit card than with cash. Another trick is to smoothly transition from a game based on skills to a game based on luck. “If the shift from skill game to money game is done in a subtle enough manner, the consumer’s brain has a hard time realizing that the rules of the game have changed. If done artfully, the consumer will increasingly spend under the assumption that they are still playing a skill game and “just need a bit of help”. This ends up also being a form of discriminatory pricing as the costs just keep going up until the consumers realizes that they are playing a money game.“ Freemium game developers thus target and exploit the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of certain players. Candy Crush twinkling lights and hypnotic music is akin to a slot machine at a casino. The phenomenon is very analogous to gambling dependency. The impression that we are in control of a game is key to its addictive nature and is vital when playing a slot machine, for example. Other tactics have been documented [1], [2].

Cases of people living paycheck to paycheck and emptying their bank account because of the game have been documented. Some people can play responsibly and have fun. However, sometimes vulnerable players develop deep addictions. One friend who works in the industry told me about one player who spent more than $80k in a single year on one of their games. Companies know very well all these statistics and how much each player spends. Should they identify addiction patterns and try to limit them? A survey by Ask Your Target Market polled 1,000 players and found that 32% of them ignored friends or family to play the game, 28% played during work, 10% got into arguments with significant others over how long they played, and 30% said they were “addicted.” A 45-year-old English woman acting as a caregiver for her ailing mother stole 2000$ from her bank account to fuel her addiction. Another playing 8 hours a day worries that she might be addicted.

So, what should be done? Kompu gacha, a monetization mechanic in social games, has been declared illegal in Japan. As companies are developing ever more exploitative monetization schemes, especially geared towards children, additional regulation will have to be put in place to protect consumers. One option is to set a pre-defined limit on the possible amounts spent. For casinos, various jurisdictions have implemented self-exclusion programs. It should be easier to detect addiction and track self-exclusion for mobile and web games. Responsible companies should implement it.

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