I have a love-hate relationship with free-to-play mobile games. On the one hand they are absolutely predatory in a way that might actually get them regulated by the government as gambling. On the other, they help me deal with mental illness the way nothing else does.
My game of choice is Marvel Strike Force, and it’s as good an example of the overall phenomenon as any. The game allows you to collect various Marvel superheroes and form them into squads. Those squads face off in challenges but getting anywhere in the game means you have to upgrade the characters. This can be done by logging in every day and completing daily goals, but you can also spend real world money in order to advance. This is a pretty standard model.
I started playing Marvel Strike Force shortly after I got out of a hospital for a mental health breakdown, and the game did me a world of good. Like most of these games, you don’t so much play it as log hours on it. The combat can even be automated or matches outright simulated, and that’s what I do most of the time. It gives me something I can discreetly fidget with while watching movies or waiting in line that allows me to keep my anxiety in check.
Beyond that, there is a real sense of slow accomplishment to the experience. I like looking at the potential roster and knowing that I have collected most of the characters. There’s a sense of calm that comes with meticulously clearing simple daily goals and long-term campaigns that involve the slow build of various characters.
According to Mark B. McKinley, “For some, the satisfaction comes from experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of a-big-world-out-there, which can serve as a means of control to elicit a comfort zone in one’s life, e.g., calming fears.” I can attest to that. The act of collecting in the game literally calms me, and my brain’s inability to produce dopamine under normal circumstances is the main driver of my mental illness. I’m made healthier by Marvel Strike Force.
The dark side is that I have spent more money on this game than any other I have ever bought. Those purchases were rarely made out of a place of calm reason. They generally came during moments of frustration at the game’s predatory gambling mechanic.
Marvel Strike Force and other games like it use loot boxes, random drops of needed resources. Think of them as slot machines that don’t actually have the chance to give you any money back. Why would anyone do that? Because that’s how compulsion works. It’s called a compulsion loop, a string of activities meant to gain a neurochemical reward. Talk to any habitual problem gambler and you’ll quickly find the money has become a secondary concern. What matters is the win. Winning produces a chemical brain reaction, and if the loop is performed often enough the brain will forget how to produce those chemicals through healthier means.
Video game companies are keenly aware of this and are designing titles to take advantage of it. In games like Marvel Strike Force, what you need is almost always randomly generated from battles or available as straight purchases. Some of those run $50 for boosting a single character. Those options are especially enticing for new characters that are only available through limited time events which require a lot of dedication to unlock. I once set a time for every two hours to remind me to log on and do some battles so I could pick up one of these acquisitions. The game is constantly screaming at you “go, go, go, or you’re going to miss out! Your collection will be incomplete.”
When that’s combined with mandatory cool down periods of play that can be circumvented by, you guessed it, resources for purchase, it becomes a whole new level of possible anxiety. This is not a small problem, either. YouTuber Jim Sterling did an incredible video on the addictive costs created by this model, and the real financial ruin that it can bring on people who have their brains rewired to serve an overly greedy business practice. If you are prone to addictive behavior or anxiety (*waves hello*), these games are a minefield.
It’s a shame that a game that has done wonders to help quell the mental demons in my head is also always waiting to take advantage of me. It seems like fixing this would be fairly simple. Instituting a maximum buying amount per month or straight subscription would go a long way. The game could also just do away with some of the hype mechanics. Stop rotating resources in the stores and guarantee rewards instead of making them random drops so that the gambling aspect is less present. People would still spend money, but perhaps less compulsively. Weaponizing the frustration of a failed gamble to shake more cash out of a customer is predatory, plain and simple. If game companies don’t stop doing it, they should prepare for regulation. It’s become too big a problem to simply ignore.
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