Research in the field
Dr. Mark D. Griffiths is a psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the psychology department at Nottingham Trent University. The professor is well known for his research in the field of video game addiction and gambling.
Griffiths published a paper last year in which he argued that social games have gambling-like elements, even when there is no money involved whatsoever -- rather, they introduce the principles of gambling through in-app purchases.
"On first look, games like FarmVille may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology behind such activities is very similar," he argues. "Even when games do not involve money, they introduce players to the principles and excitement of gambling. Companies like Zynga have been accused of leveraging the mechanics of gambling to build their empire."
One element that Griffiths has found to be particularly key in encouraging gambling-like behavior in free-to-play games is the act of random reinforcement -- that is, the unpredictability of winning or getting other types of intermittent rewards.
"Small unpredictable rewards lead to highly engaged and repetitive behavior," he says. "In a minority of cases, this may lead to addiction."
Griffiths also points to a "growing body of research" that indicates that players who are presented with virtual representations of money (virtual currency) will find that spending and gambling with this fake cash is hugely exciting.
In those instances when there is no money changing hands, players "are learning the mechanics of gambling and there are serious questions about whether gambling with virtual money encourages positive attitudes towards gambling."
On the topic of in-app purchases, Griffiths says, "The introduction of in-game virtual goods and accessories (that people pay real money for) was a psychological masterstroke."
"It becomes more akin to gambling, as social gamers know that they are spending money as they play with little or no financial return," he continues. "The one question I am constantly asked is why people pay real money for virtual items in games like FarmVille. As someone who has studied slot machine players for over 25 years, the similarities are striking."
Griffiths argues that the real difference between pure gambling games and some free-to-play games is the fact that gambling games allow you to win your money back, adding an extra dimension that can potentially drive revenues even further. This, he says, is why some free-to-play game studios like Zynga are currently moving into the pure gambling market.
Griffiths goes on to reason that the lines between social free-to-play games and gambling is beginning to blur, bringing along with them "various moral, ethical, legal, and social issues."
In another paper published earlier this year with his colleague Michael Auer, Griffiths argues that "the most important factors along with individual susceptibility and risk factors of the individual gambler are the structural characteristics relating to the speed and frequency of the game rather than the type of game."
"The general rule is that the higher the event frequency, the more likely it is that the gambling activity will cause problems for the individual (particularly if the individual is susceptible and vulnerable)," he adds. "Problem and pathological gambling are essentially about rewards, and the speed and frequency of those rewards. Almost any game could be designed to either have high event frequencies or low event frequencies."
As a result, he argues that the more potential rewards that are offered to the player, the more problematic and addictive an activity can become.
Griffiths goes on to argue that it would be potentially possible for a "safe" scenario to be achieved, by which a game is designed such that players cannot spend money past a enforced structural limit -- this would ensure that players were not able to develop a gambling problem, regardless of their susceptibility.
Griffiths is keen to stress that, as of yet, the psychosocial impact of free-to-play games are only just beginning to be investigated by people in the field of games.
"Empirically, we know almost nothing about the psychosocial impact of gambling via social networking sites, although research suggests the playing of free games among adolescents is one of the risk factors for both the uptake of real gambling and problem gambling," he adds. "Whatever research is done, we can always be sure that the gaming industry will be two steps ahead of both researchers and legislators."
Tit for tat
Most recently, a pair of analyses on the topic of free-to-play spending coercion versus pay-to-play spending coercion was spread far and wide via social media.
Ramin Shokrizade, an industry consultant who has written numerous papers on the topic of free-to-play monetization, detailed his research into how social games will trick players into making in-app purchases through incomplete information and virtual currency.
Part of this method involves providing the player with "fun pain" -- a term coined by Zynga's Roger Dickey to denote the situation in which a player is put into an uncomfortable position, and then offered the chance to remove the "pain" by spending real money.
There's also a sort of opposite monetization method to this, which Shokrizade calls "Reward Removal." A free-to-play game offers the play a huge reward, and then subsequently threatens to take away the reward if the player doesn't fork out cash.
"To be effective with this technique, you have to tell the player they have earned something, and then later tell them that they did not," he says. "The longer you allow the player to have the reward before you take it away, the more powerful is the effect."
But the use of virtual currency is where the coercion really takes off, says Shokrizade. Griffiths stated before that spending virtual currency teaches players the mechanics of gambling, but Shokrizade goes a step further and argues that when players see their real-world cash in terms of virtual currency, it lowers the sense of anxiety and allows them to be less apprehensive about spending larger amounts.
Elsewhere, Shokrizade details what he calls "Ante Games" -- those free-to-play titles that appear to be games based on skill when you first boot them up, but gradually turn into a money game, as the more experienced players put real money in to beat other players. It's worth reading Shokrizade's entire article on the topic, which also delves into "Progress Gates" and sales boosts.