Everyone spends money frivolously on at least one thing. Pre-COVID, I attended the movie theatre monthly. It didn’t matter whether the movie was decent or objectively trash, it was a minor activity I could splurge an extra $20 on. Fast forward to current times, mid-COVID – I have a lot of extra cash with nowhere to go.
The inability to really “go” anywhere seems to be taking its toll on people. Recently, I had a conversation with a close friend about how their family is doing during social distancing. They stated that yes, they were worried about their family’s health, but more than anything they were concerned about their parent’s gambling addiction.
What is a gambling addiction?
Don’t most people enjoy spending a little money for the possibility of a win? My parents sometimes indulge in a scratch-off or the occasional Powerball ticket. I never thought of it as a problem, but that is most likely because my parents have the ability to say “okay, time to stop.” Gambling addictions may sound lightweight, but it’s actually quite the public health concern. It’s classified as an impulse-control disorder and can harm psychological and physical health. People with a gambling addiction struggle with the ability to stop.
And what about the symptoms? “Returning to gamble after losing money” and “lying to conceal gambling activities” sound like rather normal reactions when getting caught unnecessarily spending money, but that’s where gambling addictions become a threat. It’s hard to identify and easy to conceal. Gambling addicts may feel a personal investment in their gambling with little payout and continue to feel a sense of achievement. They may spend a large amount of money (that they may not even have) for a reward that is objectively less.
It’s not about the reward itself at that point, it becomes about the feeling of winning against small odds.
Gambling in COVID
You can imagine that having excess money accumulate over months of social distancing can make one feel as if they have more freedom to spend recklessly. While my friend’s parents haven’t been making trips to the casino as often due to COVID, they’re still getting their gambling fix through other means – smart phone app stores.
“They can find all these video games through the app store,” my friend explained. “It’s not a slot machine, but you can keep going and going until you’re satisfied with your digital reward. It’s the same thing.” Most phone apps you download nowadays have the option of paying in exchange for a little something. Microtransactions have became a norm among all apps and video games.
Micro transactions appear to bank on pushing the limitations of a person’s impulse-control. Facebook was when free games with microtransaction began (seriously, reading the history of micro transactions make you realize that Facebook games were testing the waters) but one of the most popular current forms of this are gacha games. Gacha games are free games that let you essentially “roll” for a chance to get a limited character, outfit, etc. You’re basically turning your real-world money into fake money to get an item that doesn’t exist in reality but in a digital space. With COVID and our inability to really go anywhere, this seems like a real threat for anyone trying to pass time playing any phone app or video game with microtransactions.
One such game that’s blowing up right now is Genshin Impact. The game launched late fall of 2020 and before the end of 2020 already gained around $6 million every day. Like most gacha games, Genshin Impact is free with optional microtransactions. The game’s gacha allows players to roll for characters or weapons, with rare characters and weapons changing every 2-3 weeks. One article notes:
“The game’s rarest characters and weapons have an absurdly low acquisition chance of 0.6 percent; that rises to 5.1 percent for other characters and middle-of-the-road weapons. A pity system guarantees players will unlock a rare item every 90 rolls; a more common item, every 10 rolls. Even with daily play, it could take players months to possibly acquire a specific rare character or weapon. With the game’s rarest characters (referred in-game as “5 stars”) available only for a limited period (usually three weeks), Genshin Impact is designed to perpetuate FOMO.” (Indiewire, 2020)
A 0.5 %to 5.1% chance of acquiring a digital award isn’t even 50% of a chance yet Genshin Impact is making bank. Using the idea that a player is guaranteed a rate item at some point, the game succeeds in making players feel as if they’re actually making some sort of progress by spending money. Of course that’s not to say the fault is entirely on the companies for exploiting this as people are responsible for themselves, but it’s a tactic seeped in psychology. Genshin Impact players can pay $5 for 300 Genesis Crystals (the in-game currency) to pay for extra goodies, which doesn’t seem like much until you realize that Genesis Crystals aren’t actually what is used to roll for characters. Players must exchange Genesis Crystals for Primogems at a 1:1 ratio. 160 Primogems allow players to roll a single time while 1,600 Primogems allow players to roll 10 times.
So let’s do the math. 300 Genesis Crystals gets a player 300 Primogems. It takes 160 Primogems for a single roll.
300 – 160 = 140.
300 Primogems only gives a player 1 roll with 140 Primogems leftover.
And it isn’t a coincidence that players have 140 Primogems leftover. Players can also spend $0.99 for 60 Genesis Crystals, converting into 60 Primogems. For two rolls, players can spend $6. The most expensive purchase, $99.99 for 6,480 Genesis Crystals (converting into exactly 6,480 Primogems) gives players about 40 rolls. Players are guaranteed a rare character or weapon at 90 rolls, which means that even the most expensive microtransaction doesn’t guarantee that players even get the rare item.
With the cost and low percentage of success, players are encouraged to spend money again and again. This definitely reads like a slots machine at a casino – each machine is programmed to reward less than the money put in, which gives the casino profit. The slim chance of winning doesn’t even register for most people as they believe “it’s just $5″ until it turns into “it’s just $100.”
Microtransactions in videogames can put anyone at risk of developing a gambling addiction under the innocent visuals. Of course there are precautions that responsible adults can take, but the problem with microtransactions in games is its accessibility. This could be seen as an easier avenue for a gambling addiction to be born, especially because there is no age limit to an app or video game (because really – all you need is a password or a parent to buy their kid that rated M Dead by Daylight). Kids can start gaining an addiction early on and we hear plenty of stories about children spending $16k on an iPad game.
In our current day and age, there doesn’t seem to be many solutions. Every individual is different and the only thing we can really tell one another is to be mindful of spending. Recent conversations on Twitter have stirred discussions on prevention practices. I for one am trying to be a little more mindful of that excess money I mentioned earlier…especially because I play Genshin Impact. I haven’t spent any money yet, but everyday it looks tempting.