When I play video games, be it for work or for fun, I have to be really careful about how I interact with microtransactions. I’m autistic, and because of my condition, I often find it really easy to get sucked into micro transaction economies in ways that are actively harmful to me.
And, I know I’m not alone. Microtransactions in games often prey on users referred to as “whales”, a small percentage of players who spend very large amounts of money. What the games industry really doesn’t want to acknowledge is that a lot of those “whales” are players spending beyond their means due to compulsive behaviour, and in many cases, those players are disabled.
So today on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk a little about microtransactions in games, and how they can get their hooks into disabled players. We’re going to discuss some tricks used by video games to keep disabled players purchasing, and some of the specific disabilities which can predispose people to needing to avoid microtransaction economies.
So, let’s start off by talking a little bit about myself, and my issues surrounding microtransactions as an autistic gamer.
Autism as a condition impacts my life in a wide variety of ways, from trouble processing sensory information to a deep need for rules and structure. But, more pertinent to this episode, I really struggle with addictive behaviours, and an inability to break behaviour patterns until expected results occur, even when doing so is to my own detriment. I obsessively collect finished sets of things, and will put huge amounts of time into completing meaningless collections.
I struggled a lot with this when I first started playing Overwatch, as the way the game handled microtransactions felt purpose built to exploit how my brain works. Overwatch, at least at launch, would give players occasional free boxes of randomised items between matches. These boxes could also be purchased for real money. Sometimes these boxes contained cool new outfits, which would only be available until a certain date. Forced scarcity meant you couldn’t rely on eventually getting these items for free, as you might run out of time. So, if that outfit you need to complete your set doesn’t show up and the outfits cycle out tomorrow, why not spend some money on randomised item packs in the hope it shows up?
The loop of giving me free items from an incomplete set, setting up scarcity, then offering me a way to pay my way to hopefully completing a collection that was nearly complete really got its claws in me for a while, and I spent more on pointless outfits in that game than I could really justify. I had to stop playing the game cold turkey for a while, as it was incredibly easy for me to slip into compulsive spending loops in that game, where my disability made it incredibly difficult to stop spending, even when doing so was detrimental to me.
I was an Overwatch whale. Not because I had disposable income and wanted to reward the developers. I was an Overwatch whale because I have a disability, and the way the game’s microtransactions were set up took advantage of those compulsions so I would spend beyond my means.
I’ve talked a little above about my experiences as an autistic gamer compulsively spending on microtransactions, but my disability is far from the only one that might make someone prone to purchasing microtransactions in games. So, let’s talk about some of the other disabilities that might lead a player to be more susceptible to becoming a whale.
A little while back, we recorded an episode of Access-Ability with special guest James Stephanie Sterling, all about what it’s like playing video games as someone with ADHD. One aspect of the condition, which we touched on at the end of that video, is that gamers with ADHD are often susceptible to predatory microtransactions.
ADHD as a condition can for some cause impulsive behaviours, and a tendency for addiction. If a gamer with ADHD is struggling with a game because it has been made deliberately grindy and isn’t keeping their attention, a paid microtransaction “booster” to speed up progression through the game might push them to spend extra on the game. If there’s an item they want exclusively locked behind randomised boxes, and they try a single purchase to try and get one, they’re more likely than the average gamer to get lost to sunk cost fallacy and stuck trying to get the item. Gamers with ADHD who start buying randomised microtransactions are often more likely to repeat purchases acting on impulse, not noticing when they have spent more than they intended.
For gamers with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, intrusive thoughts and obsessive patterns can lead to microtransactions becoming compulsive purchases.
If a gamer with OCD gets mentally hung up on the fact there is an item they don’t have in game, but that they could have, that can sometimes manifest as intrusive thoughts, and an inability to mentally set aside the thought that they’re fixated on. If a gamer with OCD gets into a pattern of buying microtransactions in a game, it can shift from something they consciously choose to do, into being something they do subconsciously. In either case, it can be tough to resist the allure of an initial purchase, or to escape the cycle once they begin making repeat purchases.
Gamers with bipolar disorder, a condition that causes swings between depressive episodes and manic episodes, are also often susceptible to loot box style microtransactions. You can google Bipolar Disorder and Gambling to see a whole host of medical websites discussing the fact that people with the condition on a manic episode are often susceptible to addictive spending on gambling style mechanics, from scratch cards to slot machines. The gambling industry knows this, there is evidence that gambling companies will deliberately aim targeted ads towards users with bipolar disorder, in the hopes of getting them to spend obsessively during a manic episode. The same tricks that make people with bipolar disorder prone to gambling addiction make them prone to overspending on microtransactions.
Gamers with depression have reportedly higher rates of spending on microtransactions, which makes sense. When you’re stuck in a deep depressive episode, microtransactions are a quick hit of dopamine. You have a thing that you didn’t have before, and the game makes a big show of giving that item to you.
Gamers with Borderline Personality Disorder often suffer from poor impulse control, which can impact their relationship with microtransactions. I spoke to multiple gamers with BPD who specifically noted that time limited microtransactions, such as when a skin in Fortnite is only available for a limited time, were a big issue for them. As soon as something seems scarce, their brain wants to purchase it right away without thinking, in case they later want it and can’t get it.
Additionally, and this is going to impact many of you who are fine avoiding microtransactions today, the older people get, the more prone they are to conditions such as alzheimers which impact impulse control. The wider gambling industry isn’t doing enough right now to protect vulnerable old people with degenerative mental health conditions from getting into problem gambling, and I’d be willing to bet a few decades from now, as more gamers reach that age bracket, the games industry will be there ready to take your pension payments, as you forget quite how much you’ve spent in game.
So, what can we do about the fact that so often, when the game industry talks about microtransaction whales, they mean disabled people spending beyond their means? Well, there are two approaches we should probably be taking, finding proactive steps to protect ourselves from predatory microtransactions, and shining a light on the reality that video game microtransactions specifically profit from triggering impulsiveness or compulsion in those with disabilities.
Let’s start with the things we have in our control. As a disabled gamer who is prone to addictive spending in games, I have to be aware of that fact, and act accordingly. I try to avoid games I know contain loot box style microtransactions, I turn down free in game loot boxes when I have the option, and I do my best to avoid ever making the first purchase that opens the floodgates.
When I was having trouble avoiding spending in Overwatch, for a little while I set up parental controls on my console, and let my friend set the password to control it. I put barriers in my way, out of my control, that meant I couldn’t spend without someone else knowing, and keeping an eye on me. Sometimes, knowing your problems, and giving someone the keys to keep you away, can really help.
But, ultimately, as the industry moves towards microtransactions becoming normalised, there’s only so much disabled gamers can do to avoid games entirely that contain them. What we need to do is put pressure on game developers to do something.
Randomised item drops and time limited additional purchases are designed in such a way that disabled players are often compelled into purchasing beyond their means. That is the reality of the situation. Developers love to talk about “Whales” as though they’re all rich players with spare fun money to burn, but a lot of their income comes from disabled gamers, and I refuse to believe developers don’t know that.
Game developers know microtransactions prey on disabled gamers. We need to be loud and vocal about that, if we’re ever going to stem the tide of what video games are becoming.