I feel like everyone is in agreement about micro-transactions being bad for gamers. After all, allowing players to buy an advantage over other players, or flat out creating impediments, in games, that can only be surmounted through micro-transactions is, at best, irritating, and, at worst, horribly exploitative. But, to this day, there has been a hierarchy of these critiques which put micro-transactions which purely effect cosmetic aspects of the game lower on the scale of being reprehensible than systems which are more gameplay oriented. But, I believe there is an argument for these cosmetic systems being as bad, if not worse than their counterparts.
Micro-transactions are a way to cash-in on the competitiveness of gamers. After all, it would be a lot easier to ignore opportunities to get ahead, if we didn’t truly want to get ahead, that badly. The allure of powerful units or gear has been the fuel behind the success of many games, especially on mobile platforms. The exploitation in these games is on the nose; these games take advantage of people who become enamored with these games, asking players who enjoy the game, to pony up more cash if they want to keep up with the Jones. And though it’s easy to say, it should be easy not to fall into these types of traps, you could say the same about gambling and yet, it is extraordinarily addictive.
Micro-transactions are built around the same psychological mechanisms that make gambling so very hard to get free of but, replace monetary incentives with in-game incentives. To figure out why this formula still works when money is taken out of the equation, you need only ask one question, why do people get so competitive in gaming? And the answer, in part, can be found in the social aspect of video games. Because, despite the stereotypical view of gaming as an activity which promotes isolation, gaming is a social activity.
If you’ve ever been in a room full of Overwatch players, you’ll quickly notice them comparing which rank they are in competitive, the same can be said of League players, and Destiny 2 players. Gamers like to compare themselves to other gamers in the pursuit of social status. The amount of aggravation, verbal abuse, and frustration gamers are able to endure in the pursuit of rank is evidence of this. In essence, micro-transactions are exploitative because they utilize this need to climb the social ladder in order to extract resources from members who want to keep up.
Cosmetics, such as character skins are centered on the idea of looking cool. If real the real-life fashion industry can tell us anything, humans have a tendency to put a lot of stock into the way they are dressed. It’s an important part of how people measure themselves and differentiate themselves from the people around them. Clothes can be a status symbol and a significant one at that. With all of this being said, micro-transactions regarding clothes, skins, etc. are incredibly important, socially, in video games. Skins in League of Legends can communicate, how long a player has been playing, how good they are at a champion, or flat out how much money they have and the same can be said of Overwatch and other similar games.
When these cosmetic systems are monetized it is every bit as manipulative and exploitative as when games make you pay for weapons because it all feeds into that same vying for social power that happens in any setting you put people into And though I want to end with a call to action, I am also caught up within these models. One look at my Fire Emblem Heroes or Overwatch account, says that much. But still, I hope that in the future these trends will reverse because, gamers will be able to ignore these games, in favor of games which do not hold so much contempt for it players