The International Social Games Coalition is a group that was set up earlier this year, with the aim to better educate people about the inner-workings of the social games business. I spoke with the group's CEO Luc Delany regarding my findings.
(I should note at this point that the ISGC was set up by Zynga alongside a variety of social casino game companies, and it was a Zynga representative that suggested I talk to Delany. I say this not to undermine any of Delany's points, but rather to give you the full picture when reading his views, and to explain why much of the discussion is focused around comparing free-to-play "whale" spending with "whale" spending in the gambling industry.)
"Lots of people have tried to draw the parallel between people spending money in social games, and real-money gambling," he tells me. "However, the motivations for playing a gambling game versus any other game, or any other type of entertainment, are very different."
He notes that in gambling games, there is a risk of loss, and the opportunity of winning -- therefore the addiction that players have to free-to-play games is very different.
"There is a documented history of people being addicted to video games, and other forms of entertainment," he adds. "I spend too much money on iTunes, and films I'll never watch, just because I make an impulsive buy. People spend so much money on handbags, on golf clubs, on all kinds of other forms of entertainment, but gambling is very clearly defined as games where there is a stake, a chance, and a win or loss."
I ask him about the example of Chris purchasing Team Fortress 2 "keys" in the hope that he will be rewarded with an "unusual" item, and then continuing to purchase keys until he found such an item. Isn't there an element of stake and chance there?
"I don't see it as the same issue as gambling," he answers. "Under that scenario, how do you compare it to certain TV shows that are essentially the same thing? People text in to play along with a game, trying to find the money in the box -- yet that's not a regulated gambling service. As a society, we've judged that to be the motivation of a payout, that creates a certain risk amongst players. Therefore we've decided that this level of regulation is necessary."
Delany is keen to stress that social games are already heavily regulated -- there are consumer rights, data protection acts, unfair commercial practice directives, and more -- and he questions, "Is there proof that this form of entertainment is more harmful or addictive than other forms of entertainment?"
At this point, I questioned how harmful or addictive a free-to-play game would have to be before we, as an industry, should have to take it seriously.
"I don't have an answer for that," answers Delany. "If you look at stories about people being addicted to things, whatever is the latest form of entertainment gets hit with that badge. In the '90s it was games consoles, in the '80s it was television, before then it was radio -- radio was going to destroy culture etc. So it's not a new discussion, that people scrutinize new forms of entertainment. It's a healthy part of society."
"However," he adds, "today there is no evidence to suggest that this is a particularly dangerous form of entertainment, as opposed to any other form of entertainment that people spend money on. We know that people spend too much money is all forms of entertainment."
The road ahead
There's a lot to take in here, and clearly my delving into the underbelly of free-to-play is just the tip of the iceberg. Whichever way the signs appear to point, a hell of a lot more research is needed to truly paint the full picture of what is going on behind the scenes.
It's clear that no-one's idea of a good step forward is to get government bodies involved in the process, regardless of whether it would benefit free-to-play players or not. As part of my due diligence for this article, I did get in touch with both the Federal Trade Commission and the UK's Office of Fair Trading, to assess their views. I don't expect to hear back from them for a while, given the volume of correspondence they no doubt receive, but I plan to relay any response to do receive.
In the meantime, it would seem foolish to let the topic lie, especially while the conversation is well and truly flowing. While research into the potential psychological elements of free-to-play game design continues, it's my hope that free-to-play studios will at least take a hard look at the current design manifestos being carted around, and consider how they may be affecting the lives of their players.