“I’ve discovered the perfect business! People swarm in, empty their pockets, and scuttle off. Nothing can stop me now, except microscopic germs, but we won’t let that happen, will we, Smithers?” – C.M. Burns
“Uh, no, sir.” – Mr. Smithers
Freemium games like Tapped Out and Candy Crush are mostly harmless. Sure, a few people will find themselves spending much more than they anticipated, but no one is going to bankrupt themselves buying the Duff Brewery. By contrast, video slots and poker are so addictive that they’ve radically altered the demographics at gambling support meetings. Before the machines, the typical first time attendee was an older man whose love of the ponies or blackjack had finally gotten the better of him after years or decades. These days, the typical first timer is a woman in her thirties who has been gambling for less than two years. Freemium is a long way from generating that kind of misery, and hopefully always will be.
But while there aren’t any support groups filled with sad stories, there’s no denying that Electronic Arts and News Corporation have created a game which looks harmless and free while attacking your mind with cunning mental and technical tricks that are as sneaky as they are scientific. They aren’t playing for chump change, either. To put you in the zone for a few minutes a couple of times per day, they’re pushing hundreds of dollars of tantalizing nothing on you. Most disturbingly, and unlike traditional video games, the goal of their labors is not to entertain or delight, but to ensnare, to get people into a repetitive environment and then bar the doors with every psychological sleight of hand in the book so that they’ll stay until they spend as much money as possible.
The same way that baffling end user agreements and all that tiny print your cable and credit card companies send you can only be called an informed agreement between equals by the narrowest lawyerly definition, your interactions with The Simpsons Tapped Out are not a fair fight. Your brain, a few kilograms of spongy matter that’s some combination of distracted, stressed, horny, confused and tired, is no match for the relentlessness attentiveness of a machine programmed by highly trained professionals with years of experience and millions of dollars of development behind them. They know your human weaknesses better than you do, and they have a tool at their disposal that has infinite patience and unlimited staying power. You might download that game thinking it’s free, you might download it knowing it’ll try to sell you stuff and think you’ll never give in; it doesn’t matter to the game. Either you will or you won’t; its feelings won’t be hurt by failure any more than it’ll feel proud of success. It just is.
Video games are fun and people like them, so making a good one ought to be worth some money. But EA isn’t charging people to play a game or have some fun, they’re casting an automated drift net. It’s a net most people will scoot through without even noticing, but it will catch some of them for hundreds or thousands of dollars. By the traditional measurement of video games, those people got badly ripped off. It is only next to the fathomless greed of video slots and video poker that their experience makes sense. Addictive, available anywhere, and with no upper limit to what you can spend, The Simpsons Tapped Out and the people behind it have brought the predatory psychology of gambling to video games. Fuck ’em.
– – –