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Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games
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Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games

July 9, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 9 Next

This story is being highlighted as one of Gamasutra's best stories of 2013.

"I'd use birthday money, I'd eat cheaper lunches, I'd ask my wife to pay for dinner so I'd have a spare $10-$20 to spend in the store. Which does mean, I guess, that I was thinking about it even away from the game."

Chris was in his mid-20s when he began spending a few dollars here and there on Team Fortress 2. All of his friends had recently moved out of town, and his wife was now working a nighttime job, leading him to take solace in an online TF2 community.

At first he'd simply buy some TF2 "keys", use them to open some item crates, then dish some of the contents out to players online and keep the good stuff for himself. He enjoyed the social interactions that came with these giveaways, and it seemed worth it for the money he was paying.

But soon Chris discovered his first "unusual" item, marked with a purple seal. "I had this unbeatable rush of adulation and excitement," he says. "For someone who didn't get out much I was on cloud nine. And at that point things changed -- I started chasing that high."


For around six months following this discovery, Chris found himself draining his bank account until he didn't have a spare dollar to his name -- all for a selection of pixels that would hopefully be wrapped in a purple glow.

"My savings got wiped out pretty quickly -- although it should be noted that at the time I didn't have much put away to begin with," he explains. "The real trouble wasn't that it cleaned out my bank account, but that it put me in a really delicate situation. With no savings and every dollar not spent on food, shelter, or utilities going to digital hats, any unexpected expense became a really big deal."

Chris even had a few health scares along the way, and found that he couldn't afford to pay the medical bills because his savings account had been stripped for TF2 money.

"It got so bad that at one point Steam actually blocked my credit card, thinking I was some sort of account scammer, and I had to open a support ticket to tell them, 'No, that really is me spending whatever savings I have on this stupid game with fake hats.'" he says. "And like any addicted user, my social element didn't help -- most of my outside-of-work contacts were people I just played TF2 with. At work I just wanted to be uncrating things, and when I was uncrating things I just wanted to see better results."

It was when his out-of-control spending began to have an effect on his relationship with his wife, that Chris finally realized that this needed to stop.

"I've never really been addicted to anything else, so I can't say for certain whether a 'real' addiction would be stronger," he notes. "I would say that it felt akin to what I'd expect a compulsive gambling addiction would feel like -- social pressures reinforced a behavior that kept me searching for an adrenaline rush I'd never be able to recapture, even as it kept me from making progress in life."

"There were nights where I'd be up until 3 am drinking beer and playing Team Fortress and chasing those silly hats with purple text, ignoring the gambler's fallacy and swearing that if I dropped another $50 I'd be sure to win this time," he adds. "Then I'd wake up the next morning and see that I'd not only spent over a hundred dollars on digital hats, but failed my only objective by uncrating a bunch of junk."

Those were the mornings that felt the worst -- when the reality of what Chris was doing hit home the hardest. He'd feel hugely depressed and worthless, and swear to himself that he wouldn't be back again... and yet, the moment another paycheck came through, it was gone as quickly as it came.

Chris' behavior during this time is how people in the video game industry would describe a "whale"-- someone who spends large amounts on free-to-play games, and essentially makes the business model viable by balancing out the 99 percent of players who don't ever fork out a dime.

And while Chris is happy to admit that a portion of his addiction was no doubt down to his own silly mistakes, he reasons, "I have to question whether a business model built on exploiting 'whales' like me isn't somewhat to blame. Free-to-play games aren't after everyone for a few dollars -- they're after weak people in vulnerable states for hundreds, if not thousands." 

Article Start Page 1 of 9 Next

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