As a society, it appears we are increasingly moving our games of skill from the physical space to the digital. This has, in general, been a positive for the players of these games. Indeed, if one now wants to play a round of chess at 10 p.m., you can immediately do so with a player of comparable skill from anywhere around the world. This means we no longer have to rely on the people around to play a game.
As a result, those who enjoy any particular game are able to play far more often, and have a far better experience, imagine being in a hospital today versus 30 years ago. Back then, playing a game of bridge would have been virtually impossible, now it’s just a click away. With this change, however, we are also seeing a new negative rear its ugly head: the concept of the “pay-to-win” game, and its implications for the average individual.
In most traditional games, whether they are physical or mental, the amount a person spends on equipment to play the game conveys little to no advantage for that player: chess, shogi, go, bridge, cribbage, dominoes, basketball, baseball, water polo. Even a man with the most expensive chess board and pieces made of gold has no advantage over an individual using paper pictures of the pieces. The amount spent on equipment is irrelevant.
Similarly, athletic sports exist in the same realm. While it can be argued that small advantages can be gained from better equipment, this equipment is either shared (both sides will use both hoops and the same ball) or conveys an inconsequential advantage, moving these games into the skill based category.
Pay-to-win, however, abandons this by conveying a direct advantage, which is typically logarithmic to the amount spent by the individual. An example of pay-to-win would be trading card games, wherein certain decks are objectively stronger than others, and by paying an additional $10 to $20, you can see a direct power increase.
As a real world example, a 30 cent card might have a power of 2/2 for a cost of two, whereas a $128 has a power of 4/5 for a cost of two, and therefore the 30 cent card will always lose to the $128 card. This example is not hypothetical. It is the difference between the cards Grizzly Bears and Tarmogoyf in MTG.
Lastly, “pay-to-win” is not paying for skill acquisition. For example, if I paid Michael Jordan to train me to play basketball or Grandmaster Ben Finegold to train me in chess, I would likely have an advantage going into my next game, but this is due to time and resources spent on mastering the game, not on required tools to play it.
Clearly, someone reading this is going to have a problem with the pay-to-win concept, but why is it relevant to the average person? Simply put, due to the increasing amount of time spent on video games rather than physical games, pay-to-win has become a far greater problem.
In the past, if one was talking about sports which were pay-to-win, they were talking about the hobby of kings, whether it be dressage or polo the common man had little care for these games as they had no impact on them. In today’s society, however, literally millions of people are playing games which distort the very spirit of a game of skill.
For example, the player base of Clash of Clans and Farmville combined would be the ninth largest country in the world, beating out Russia, to say nothing of the countless other games in the genre.
This turns from a minor nuisance to a real world problem once human psychology gets involved. Players are psychologically tricked into spending far more than they otherwise would, do to our mentality of chasing the win and our desire to “keep up with Jones,” much like why people spend real money on useless gadgets due to herd perception.
The second problem is the psychology and dissonance of cost in our mind for winning. As an example, in Grand Forks, even though everyone knows they will lose money playing blackjack at Joe Black’s, people still play. Imagine if you knew that by paying an additional $10 per week, you could win substantially more, and instead of being a 75th percentile player, you would be in the tenth percentile. If one knows this, their mind rationalizes the costs as the wins alone trigger a rush, disproportionate to the amount spent to achieve it.
Problematically, evidence also suggests that the less frequent the reward the more we are willing to risk to get it, which largely explains the problems behind gambling. We as humans are trained to ignore the non physical costs of victory and as a result tend to get ourselves into trouble in these sorts of games. In Clash of Clans, some players spent literal millions, competing with each other to have the title of “the best,” when the title should have really been “the wealthiest.”
Last is that many of these games understand our psychology. If a player knew that the game is phenomenally expensive, nobody would play.
The game companies thus market themselves as free to play, and new players early on are given artificial boosts to their resources/matched with other new players to give a false impression of the game.
As the player increases their time playing, however, the true costs of the game reveal themselves more and more. As an example, Hearthstone, a trading card game starts off by giving the player ten free card packs, and frequent rewards. The longer you spend playing, however, the more infrequent these rewards become, forcing the player to spend money to enhance their deck to be truly competitive, as new cards are released constantly, which can only be acquired through packs. By the end of the first month, a player is getting one pack a week, but would need 30 to keep up with the release of content.
Now that we have discussed these sort of games and their problems I think it would be best if I gave you a list of genres to avoid, so that you aren’t trapped in the future by these games. They are in order of average cost: Miniature Wargames, Trading Card Games, Collectable Card Games, Mobile F2P games, MOBA’s. If you see any game that markets themselves as one of these, no matter what they promise they are a game of money not skill.
Dave Owen is a staff writer for The Dakota Student. He can be reached at [email protected]