Way back in February the EU commission raised concerns over business models in the mobile phone ‘app industry’. There were 4 major points of concern, these are taken directly from the EC press release :
• Games advertised as “free” should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved;
• Games should not contain direct exhortations to children to buy items in a game or to persuade an adult to buy items for them;
• Consumers should be adequately informed about the payment arrangements and purchases should not be debited through default settings without consumers’ explicit consent;
• Traders should provide an email address so that consumers can contact them in case of queries or complaints.
These include not using the word “free” at all when games contain in-app purchases, developing targeted guidelines for its app developers to prevent direct exhortation to children as defined under EU law and time-framed measures to help monitor apparent breaches of EU consumer laws. It has also adapted its default settings, so that payments are authorized prior to every in-app purchase, unless the consumer actively chooses to modify these settings.
For those who don’t play games this might be a little but confusing. The idea is that currently Google (and I presume Apple) have games that can be downloaded without a cost, but these games still make money for their publishers. Looking at the Google ‘top grossing’ section on the play store reveals that only 1 in the top 50 grossing games is actually paid for (Minecraft). The games that can be download without payment often label themselves as free and the games industry dubs them Free2Play. Although when 49 out of the top 50 Google Play grossing apps are Free2Play it is clear they not only make money somehow, but are actually pretty good at making it. The techniques these games use to make money is through what is called ‘in-app purchasing’. The idea is that instead of paying for a game you pay for items in the game, the game publishers claim you don’t need the items to play; hence Free2Play.
This business model requires developers to design their games a little differently than they used to. In the older, now dubbed ‘Pay once; Play forever’ model there was a set amount of money that a publisher/developer would get from a purchase of their game. In the Free2Play model the developer has the task of tempting the player to buy more in the game, and they do this buy leveraging peoples natural desire for achievement, those that pay get further quicker than those that don’t. Another way to tempt players us to dig into the desire to compete and beat their friends, a closer look at the Google play store shows that the top games are all linked to social media sites such as Facebook. Those that have played Candy Crush might familiar with the game map those shows which level friends are at and what score they got, it does not you how much they paid for items to produce that score, giving those that pay the advantage in their social network.
Players find themselves in a game that is pulling on natural desires to compete and gain status. The only way to win this game is to pay and the EU want to make it clear that when you pay and what for. You could say that the game techniques “strive to leverage people’s natural desires for socializing, learning, mastery, competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism, or closure.” Which funnily enough is the exact sentence used to describe Gamification at Wikipedia.
The games industry is young has moved at an extraordinary pace, the technology and business models that fuel it changing radically many times since the first video game console was connected to a TV some 40 years ago. You could say that this the quick pace has given both industry veterans and consumers a keen eye for social problems rising from these changes. The push back to Free2Play initally came both from industry veteran’s such as Ian Bogost’s work in what he calls his work on ‘Exploitationware’ and from consumers alike and it feels good that something is being done.
It doesn’t quite feel this way in other industries. A few months ago I got some free Facebook advertising credit, and while I was sure this was a way for Facebook to show me I could spend money with them to ‘leverage my natural desires for socializing, learning, mastery..’. I wanted to experiment with it to see what exactly they were doing. I decided not to write the results up at the time as the whole experience made me feel pretty sick and I decided it would be best to reflect and leave the write up for later. What I can say now is that the experience did make me realise that while Facebook was free to sign up and use the end user is basically the product, being used to generate data for Facebook, sell adverts to or to be a unwilling research participant. The same is true for Twitter and the like. Instead of an EU inquiry to techniques employed by these industries we can say something along the lines of ‘that’s the sacrifice I make to see pictures of my grandkids’ or ’I’m happy to let Google know where I am 24/7 so my phone can constantly tell me the nearest place for real ale’.
We find ourselves playing similar games in education, and as a gamer I find it somewhat bizarre that the term gamification is often used as a positive thing in the education world; as if underhand techniques pulling on desires of desperate students to hit your key performance indicators is a good thing. I feel the techniques are somewhat worse in education then gaming as the things we try and get them to do are more complex than that of the ‘share and pay money’ the game industry wants. In the game industry the deal seems reasonably straightforward, I want to be entertained and compete with my friends, in return I will pay for the upper hand. But what is the deal to students who find themselves trapped in the games their education institution is playing with them? Our system says the best students are the ones that pay £9000 a year and play the game exactly as we say and institutions are telling them to play the game in a way that improves the institutions prospects and not always the students. The well known example being the student feedback form where students were implicitly told that negative feedback would effect their chances of getting employed, what can they do?
I think perhaps the games we find ourselves in with social media companies and education are somewhat entwined and not easy to pick apart.
The stakes at risk are much covert than those in the app industry are much more dangerous. My hope is that a serious look at the death of free2play may expose some of the morals behind striving to leverage people’s natural desires for socializing, learning, mastery, competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism, or closure.