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Why Mobile Games Make You Their Slave and You Pay for the Privilege

Mobile gaming addiction is a very real problem for a large number of people across the world. Most of us understand that moderation is key when it comes to the colorful games that aim to part us from our money, but it's obviously too much for some people to handle.

Some might argue that it's impossible to get addicted to video games on your phone, although it's clear that it definitely has an effect on people whose lives soon revolve around apps in an unhealthy way.

Director of the International Gaming Research Unit Dr Mark Griffiths published a study about adolescent mobile phone addiction in 2013, and he said that financial implications can be the best way to judge whether or not you actually have an addiction.

"The crucial difference between some forms of mobile phone use and pathological mobile phone use is that some applications involve a financial cost. If a person is using the application more and is spending more money, there may be negative consequences as a result of not being able to afford the activity (e.g. negative economic, job-related, and/or family consequences).

"High expenditure may also be indicative of mobile phone addiction but the phone bills of adolescents are often paid for by parents, therefore the financial problems may not impact on the users themselves."

Many games are marketed at children, but it's also possible for adults to overspend. (After all, they control the money.)

In any case, despite his credibility, I think he's wrong. (Or only half-right.) Money isn't the only important factor, as the time taken playing games should also be taken into account. Since many games can make you wait, and most free apps are arguably a waste of time, you're paying in one form or another.

People with addictive personalities are always going to be at risk, but how and why do they get hooked in the first place? From Reddit communities dedicated to staying away from online gaming, to the history of mobile gaming itself, there's more to it than meets the eye.

We've spoken to developers, psychologists and gamers themselves to put together a comprehensive review of all there is to know about mobile gaming addiction, with enough tips, help and information to get a better understanding of the subject.

History of Mobile Games

Gaming has come a long way since arcades were the go to place to waste time as a teenager. Consoles and handhelds soon became the norm, while Snake was one of the most popular games you could find on a phone for a decent period of time.

I'm not going to go through a history of phones themselves, but it's notable that the technology has grown enough for full-fat experiences from yesteryear like the Final Fantasy series, or more modern examples like Telltale's The Walking Dead to run perfectly on most smartphones.

The difference is that the games above have a discernible beginning, middle and end, while some of the most popular apps will go on forever.

Nokia is pretty much dead and buried, but mobile phones have become ubiquitous in modern life. You can't escape the adverts or people using their device on the street as they go about their day, and I'm just as guilty as anyone else. The positives are plain to for all to see.

The iPhone popularized apps that were cheap or free, and easy to download, and suddenly the market was clogged with clones and junk amongst the gems. We became used to trawling through pages of games, and word of mouth was generally the key when it came to the next big thing.

The very nature of dollar apps has slowly changed the landscape of the mobile gaming market, and it means that traditional markets like Japan are slowly moving towards being mobile-orientated.

Consoles are supposedly going to become a thing of the past in the homeland of Nintendo, as mobile and handheld gaming continues to gain ground. Apps have made the entry level price of gaming so much lower on mobile, but it's reflected in the quality of many of the games themselves.

Evolution of Mobile Games

If you're not aware, recent figures suggest that mobile gaming is growing at an exponential rate.

Revenue for mobile gaming reached incredible proportions in 2012. $7.8 billion was the total amount, and the projected amount for 2016 is $12.6 billion. The weird thing is, that 0.15 percent of gamers bring in over half of that revenue.

The developers and gaming companies call the big spenders 'Whales'.

It's incredible to think of the amounts in question, and it's drawn the attention of some of the biggest critics out there.

There's even a South Park episode dedicated to the nefarious practices, entitled Freemium Isn't Free. It goes into cynical detail about how the games are developed, making the game like a drug, which regularly gives the user a hit as long as they're willing to pay.

Here's the main point of the episode:

Essentially, it shows that games borrow a reward loop system, which will be discussed in-depth in the next section. The short version is, the lowered price point (often free) means that they monetize everything else, creating the game around systems that bore the player into paying to progress.

Is it really as bad as they make out? It's fair to say that people should be allowed to spend their money on whatever they wish, but is there any point when there's often no obvious reward?  We'll discuss regulatory action below, but it's hard to stop people spending if they don't want to.

Push notifications were also a major boost to mobile games, as they give apps an additional chance to spam you with messages if you stop playing. If you're trying to stop playing it can drag you right back in.

Free to Play Structures

One of the worst things about mobile games is the way they start to affect the person playing. My friends used to play Clash of Clans religiously, and they would beg me to join up periodically. I used to sit there, watching six people playing a game on their phone.

"You might as well get involved. It only takes a few days to catch up!"

I'd ask if they ended up spending any money on the experience, and more often than not they had. After a few drinks, or just to keep up with the rest of the pack. None admitted to spending more than a few dollars at a time, but it's clear they were embarrassed that they had paid in the first place.

Mobile gaming can become a habit, and it's similar to other addictions in terms of what it does to your brain. The structure is simple enough. They'll take the concept of improvement (or levelling up) which gives the player a dopamine rush. The first hit is free, and the game will allow you to level quickly at the start.

Suddenly, BLAM. You're hit with wait times, but your brain wants the endorphin hit. So you have a choice. Boredom while you wait, or paying to progress. It's simple enough, but it works.

Often, developers will take a successful series from the past and copy it, or actually license it to play on feelings of nostalgia. (Think of Pokémon Go.) It's cynical, but that doesn't mean that all free games are guilty of these tactics.

Typical Offenders

Picture a mobile app you've seen advertised on TV. From Super Bowl commercials, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, it costs an insane amount to get that sort of publicity and exposure.

So, how can they afford to pay the likes of Kate Upton to appear with simple sprites? Think back to the figures we discussed at the start, as well as the projected revenue numbers over the next few years.

When you think about it, it makes sense. People are paying directly enough to increase exposure, and the exposure leads to an increase in revenue. In other words, it pays to make a free to play game.

There can only be a few winners amongst the endless pages of games that are available on every digital storefront, but that doesn't mean that they should all be tarred with the same brush.

Some games are more playable than others, but they'll usually make you wait. Remember that 0.15 percent of mobile gamers brought in over half of the total revenue in 2012, so it's clear that a tiny minority are paying for the rest of us to have a go, get bored, and delete. (And they're paying a lot for their trouble.)

Ad Based Games

Ad based-games are probably best known by the majority of people as most of us opt to try the free version if possible before dropping money down on a premium version. It's not as prevalent as games that run without ads, but the hooks can be just as deep.

Flappy Bird is one of the most famous games to make it big in recent years, and it made headlines after earning creator Dong Nguyen $50,000 per day in advertising revenue.

The adverts came in the form of a banner located at the bottom of the app, and it's incredible to think that a free game with such a simple concept was able to make so much money.

At least it was truly free to play, and there was no way to progress further by dropping dollars down. The simplicity made it popular, and it was a level playing field for all.

(To make a comparison, the modern take would be like having the game suddenly pause, only to inform you that you have to wait for increasingly longer periods of time before you can play again. Unless that is, you want to pay...)

It sounds ridiculous, and it is ridiculous. The problem is, with a bit of sophistication it seems to be able to work with people who have a tendency to become addicted to something.

Older games tended to rely on advertising revenue to make a profit, but it pales in comparison to the money that can be made by getting them to make in-app purchases. That's why games like Pokémon Go will run with no discernible ads to speak of, as they're confident in their ability to make money from people willing to buy Pokéballs and incense.

(We've devoted a section to Pokémon Go below.)

It also means that these revenue streams must be more than enough to cover any offset lost from advertising, which goes to show that the game is slowly changing. It's easier to charge for features and keep the user interface clean and clear, with no distractions other than the game itself.

The Psychology of Game Addiction

Some people debate whether you can actually get addicted to gaming in the first place. We searched for some of the most relevant academic sources, to see what they would they thought.

Joe Hilgard, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science.

"Gamers who are really into getting to the next level or collecting all of the in-game items seem to have unhealthier video-game use. When people talk about games being 'so addictive,' usually they're referring to games like Farmville or Diablo that give players rewards, such as better equipment or stronger characters, as they play. People who are especially motivated by these rewards can find it hard to stop playing."

Razi, S. (2015) Level of Frustration Discomfort Tolerance and Social Interaction Anxiety in Online Gaming Addicts (B.S.). Centre for Clinical Psychology, University of the Punjab.

"Online gaming addiction, as other behavioral addictions, has been known to cause tolerance which causes the addicts to play more and more as well as the need to escape negative feelings, which are mostly frustration, anger, boredom as well as lack of social interaction. The low levels of frustration tolerance, in turn makes the gamers impulsive and ready to use their money to progress in the games."

Langley, A. (2010). Correlates of Video Game Addiction (Master of Science). University of North Texas.

Langley (2010) states that video game addiction often leads to a tremendous burden on those afflicted with the condition, draining their time, resources, and life away until they have nothing left. The research a showed a high correlation between addictive video game use and a desire for escapism and lack of self-control.

Young, K. (2009). Understanding Online Gaming Addiction and Treatment Issues for Adolescents. The American Journal of Family Therapy

Young (2009) explained that addiction to online games can cause a tremendous amount of consequences to the gamer. Gaming addicts willingly forgo sleep, food, and real human contact just to experience more time in the virtual world. Gaming addicts must play for long periods of time to excel at the game, which makes them forget/ neglect their real life interactions and duties at hand.

So, it's clear that experts across the world recognize that certain negative behaviors can be caused by mobile gaming, noting a lack of self-control that causes some user to part with heaps of money.

On that note...

Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go is the latest craze in terms of mobile gaming, and it has many similar features to some of the biggest and best mobile games.

There's still a timer, but they've (rather cleverly) packaged it slightly differently. Walking is the currency most of us would like to bypass, and we can spend real money to make things happen a little faster. It becomes way more pronounced at later levels, especially when it comes to levelling up your Pokémon.

Does that sound familiar? It should, and it's made worse because it comes wrapped in the nostalgic package of one of the greatest RPG's of all time, with most of the best elements stripped away.

In my review of the app I spoke about how it's strangely addictive, drawing you in as you start filling the Pokédex and levelling your first Pokémon.

Listen to this description of late game levelling, courtesy of Forbes:

"It might not seem very high to anyone that's blown up to level 10 in a couple of days, but anyone who has made it level 20 knows how quickly the experience required starts to ramp up in this game.

"Few have made it to level 30, and it seems that it's going to take a very long time to hit up to the supposed cap of 40.

"To put some numbers on that progression, it appears to take 5 million experience just to go from level 39 to 40: anyone who's spent time min/maxing evolutions and lucky eggs knows that it could take months to get up there even under the best of circumstances."

The number of Pokéballs you need to catch Pokémon will increase as you play, with one user confirming it took over 1000 to get from level 29 to 30. He notes;

"I cannot stress how ridiculous this would be for someone playing [without] spending coins on Pokéballs (i.e. playing the game [free to play] - which is the majority)."

It'll take a while if you plan to catch them all.

Macquarie Securities discussed how the game draws you in, before incentivising players to spend money through nearly every aspect of gameplay:

"It has more (monetization) than we expected; as users build their Pokémon inventory, spending money becomes needed to store, train, hatch, and battle."

Of course, it makes sense to give the game longevity, but it would have been better if they focused on adding more actual content. Aside from gyms and catching Pokémon, it's a pretty barebones experience.

The Good and Bad of FTP Gaming

Free to play gaming makes lots of people happy, and it's a great way to pass the time as long as you do it in moderation. Most people are unaffected by the mechanics that keep a player suckered in for the most part, and there are lots of games out there that do things fairly, offering only cosmetic upgrades as optional extras. If it doesn't affect the gameplay, it's probably fair enough if the entry price was free of charge.

An article about mobile gaming addiction is never going to be a barrel of laughs. It's comforting to think that the majority of us aren't susceptible, and data supports the idea that only a minuscule number of users will pay the price.

Nonetheless, there are lots of great games to choose from, that will let you catch up with family or people you don't often get to see if you play online.

If you're looking for the TL;DR version, have a look at some of the main points below.

The Good:

It might not sound like it, but there are lots of positives when it comes to mobile gaming. Virtual Reality could easily supplant augmented reality, but the games are expensive and it'll be hard to monetise them effectively.
  • Offers a chance to socialise with others
  • Free at the point of entry, (and nobody is forcing you to pay)
  • Some games are genuinely great
  • Lots of choices
  • Phone technology is constantly improving
  • People do have fun playing without spending, depending on the game

The Bad:

Let's just get straight to the not so good:
  • A small number of people can get badly addicted, but most are just tempted. (The minority pay a reasonably heavy cost, in more ways than one. There's the literal sense, but time and relationships can also be affected. If you're the breadwinner in a household, is it worth spending time and money on a game that will never be complete? (Then again, there are worse vices in life.)
  • Games are sometimes made solely to make money, and not necessarily to be played and enjoyed without spending
  • Many games don't have an ending (sometimes considered to be a perk)
  • Mobile games can't match PC or consoles in most areas
  • Every store is stuffed with poor apps
  • The idea of gamers being seen as whales
Getting Freemium

Put simply, there's only one thing you can do to get free of the hooks carefully placed around you while playing.

Delete the app, and never play it again.

The problem is, games like these are designed to keep you addicted, and you'll start receiving notifications If you leave it for an extended period of time. You'll have to fully remove the app, which can be hard once you've invested a serious amount of time, (or real money) into a game.

The more you've invested, the harder it is to throw it away completely. It's what companies are relying on, as they just want you to keep playing, (and paying) for as long as possible.

My Clash of Clans playing friends would never have spent over $20 to buy the app outright, but they were happy to pay the money in a drip-fed fashion, although it often came in a splurge of misjudged taps in a short period of time.

Does this really look like a game which can only be played by teenagers aged 13 and up?

Gambling addiction took a very long time to be recognized despite the obvious negatives, so it'll probably be a while before gaming addiction is taken more seriously. Personally, I think it's possible to get addicted to gaming, and it's more likely if the game uses mechanics traditionally associated with gambling.

If you feel like you have an addiction to gaming, there's a subreddit called StopGaming you can join specifically to get help if you want to change your lifestyle.

It's interesting to note the terminology that is sometimes used by the Reddit users. Being 'clean' of video games is something I had never thought about, and I tend to play way too many myself.

Nonetheless, I do remember late nights and the lack of sleep associated with extended Call of Duty sessions with my friends nearly a decade ago, and I wouldn't want to get back like that again.

At least CoD allowed you to buy the game outright, but of course, the franchise now has additional cosmetic options that you can purchase with points.

But you can't actually purchase what you want, even if you spend £80 on 10000 points. The cosmetic items come in a randomly generated 'loot box', which means you have no control over what you get. And you can get duplicates. And the game still cost £40 at launch. And the extra maps will be another £40.

Basically, it's creeping into all games, and the loot crate system is essentially gambling for a digital prize. Some people sell them on in the real world, so it's clear there's a market for these items.

Worse still, some games are targeted at teens and children that wouldn't be able to sign up with a traditional gambling site because of their age. Raising a generation of gamblers is pretty risky, and it's something to think about.

Legislation and Regulation

It's all well and good to talk the talk, but government regulation is probably the best way to go.

We reached out to the UK Gambling Commission, which handles all regulation (including online gambling) to see if they had anything to say about the matter.

A spokesman pointed me in the direction of a new document that discusses new regulation of this sector. (It was only officially released on the 11th August 2016.)

They detail their current stance on games of this nature, which a handy roundup found in the executive summary.

The Commission is focusing on virtual currencies, eSports and social gaming products, in particular, as they create issues for regulation and player protection for a number of reasons, because:
  • the lines between some social gaming products and gambling are blurring
  • technological developments and the expansion of digital or virtual currencies mean that operators of some social gaming products may be offering facilities for gambling
  • the growth in the market for gambling on eSports raises new issues.
It's a step in the right direction, even if they currently consider the number of people affected to be 'insufficiently large'. (Insert whale pun here.) These increased revenue streams have to come from somewhere, and it's going to be directly from the pocket of the user if trends continue, so regulation is a good thing for users.

At least they're taking it seriously enough to publish studies and discussions, though 'watching closely' might not be enough.

They threaten action, and they've rightly identified that children can be at risk of these apps.

"Taking action against those offering facilities for gambling without a license has always been a priority for the Commission. Taking action against anyone offering facilities for gambling to children and young people is a particularly high priority."

From a user's perspective, it's great to see that the blurred lines between gaming and gambling are going to be more closely scrutinized in future.

Planning to quit

If you really want to call it a day, here's a short list with things you can do to shake off the shackles of a long term gaming addiction. (After researching this article, I've decided to limit my own playing time.)

  1. Cutting down should be the first step. Set an alarm if you don't trust yourself, and stick to the time you said you would stop.
  2. Once again, the StopGaming subreddit has a lot of people that have similar experiences.
  3. Measure the time you spend playing games for a month with a productivity app and multiply it by 12. Is that really how long you want to spend gaming each year?
  4. It's drastic, but selling everything could be useful if you know you can't trust yourself.
  5. The app store allows you to limit spending, or even stop all IAP's from your Google account.
  6. If you have nothing to do, you'll probably end up gaming. Planning activities throughout the day could be enough to help see you through the week.
  7. If you have any tips or experiences, please let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

In many ways, mobile gaming is a monster. A giant, unregulated beast that typically uses gambling techniques and psychology in an attempt to extract as much money as possible. It's a cynical view, but there's an argument that they've ripped any artistic merit from the game, because the point is that you don't want to make it too fun.

If it's too fun, people won't want to pay, but if it's boring they'll just delete it. Therefore, it's all about striking a balance, creating an addictive experience that gives the player an endorphin rush, while making them wait just long enough to be tempted to open their wallet.

Some people can play for free forever, and others lack the willpower to wait it out when the timer inevitably comes into play. It's down to the individual, and it's tough if developers are banking on a few players to pay for everyone.

There are lots of perks that have been forgotten in this article, but addiction isn't a fun subject. If you feel like you're spending too much time or money on gaming, check the subreddit for tips from people who have been through it themselves, or go through the list in the section above.

Has mobile gaming been positive or negative in your experience? Most of us can strike a balance and still have fun, but it must be tough for the people affected by a compulsion to keep spending or playing when the fun stops.

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