Why You Should Quit Playing Mobile Games
How to generate profit by abusing the player’s psychology
Since I was little, I’ve always loved videogames. I spent many hours of my childhood living the adventures of iconic characters. I traveled with Commander Shepard across many galaxies. I enjoyed the charismatic envisioning of a post-nuclear war civilization with the Fallout franchise. I developed a competitive mindset after playing almost all of the relevant competitive games of the past decade (perhaps more than I should, I must admit).
All of the games I’ve enjoyed at some point had something in common: they added some value to my life. Even if they weren’t the best games in the world, I believe each of them had something to offer.
It’s not always easy to recognize what value a given title provides, and it varies enormously from person to person. For me, Fallout is about experiencing life in a world where only the strongest survive. But I know people who lean more into the sociopolitical implications of its narrative; pondering about how a post-apocalyptic society could operate.
Anyone who creates a game is expressing something about the world he lives in.
There are some exceptions, like competitive videogames, which could generate debate on this particular topic. Some games take this more seriously and expressly aim to convey something to their players. While others focus on other aspects, such as providing a chill environment to have fun. In any case, most of them have good intentions.
The history of fun
When the computing industry was taking its first steps, everyone was focused on how to make a profitable enterprise out of it. IBM was, at that time, one of the biggest companies in the field, and it symbolized the most serious and business-like side of the new technologies. They wanted to make money by helping suited guys process numbers faster.
At the same time and far off from that austere approach, the videogame industry was being born. Some engineers wanted to tests the limits of the new machines and have some fun. The first titles appeared mainly as scholar projects and concept demos, such as Nimro, OXO, or the most-known Pong. At first, it was all about making cool experiences. Until one day, some smart guys reckoned videogames could be as profitable as the spreadsheet thing. They were not wrong.
For many years on, games would keep that initial spirit of having fun without more pretensions. Arcades became a huge subculture by bringing together loads of people to a commonplace. Soon after, companies like Atari or Sega brought the same experience to millions of homes.
The industry would keep evolving and improving upon its predecessors for the next decades. Along this time, major firms based around technology such as Google, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, or Microsoft, among many others, consolidated as the biggest businesses of all time.
Work environments professionalized, which forced standardized processes to take over the chaotic creativity of the previous decades. This brought many good things; as many as bad ones.
The player’s psychology
Now that gaming had established as a long term industry, having fun took a secondary place in the game production. Generating profit became the top priority. The more a game sold, the better.
From the 1980s to the late 2000s, this was not a major issue. Consoles were expensive, and so were games. This meant that people could not buy that many games, and each buy had to offer something strong enough to deserve the coin. So, time passed and many amazing works were produced under this system, from The Abbey Of Crime to the Half Life saga.
Then, in 2007 Steve Jobs changed the world forever by introducing the iPhone. This brought Internet access to the palm of our hands, which started a new trend in the videogame industry. Offline content quickly became old fashioned, and many developers shifted towards creating games with online functionalities. New business models were required.
Videogames had always generated profit by selling units, and players would only buy them if they were good. Free To Play (F2P) games broke the rules. Because anyone could download them in an instant, they didn’t have to be good, they only had to be attractive enough for people to install them. But how to make a profit from something free?
Well, you can just make a portion of the game free, and sell extra content for smaller prices. This is not such a bad thing, and if done correctly, it can render rather good results both for players and companies.
But there’s a darker approach that would fit right into our favorite science-fiction dystopias. What if instead of making money from the players, they made it from advertisers? This implies that the players are no longer the clients, so their welfare is simply out of the equation.
All that matters is to keep them playing, they don’t have to like it.
The psychology of the players took the main role in the production of free games. Those who studied human behavior could make their games more engaging, and that meant higher benefits.
Understanding how people behave is not something bad by itself. This knowledge also allowed many developers to improve their creations and connect with players more deeply. But it also nourished a whole type of game that bases its revenue on taking advantage of how our minds work.
Instead of making good games, [some] developers now aimed to make them addictive and time-consuming. The longer a user plays, the more revenue he generates for the company. These business models were particularly effective on smartphones; since we carry our phones everywhere, they can monetize our attention everywhen.
People’s time became an asset for corporations to trade with.
But it’s not only about games individually, but also about the net they knit together. Phone stores are flooded with millions of free shitty games. And if you install one, it will essentially show you ads to more of those apps. You may think you’re smart enough not to fall prey, but that’s not the point. Like every net, it’s not made for catching one specific target, but for catching as many as possible. Those who don’t have the tools to know what they’re falling into are especially vulnerable: our old ones, our little ones, those suffering from mental disorders such as depression or anxiety…
Most of these games are quite simple; in fact, almost anyone could learn to make them in very little time. They are also easy to start playing, one picture is enough to understand them. They generally have little content and are based around a certain mechanic, which makes them even easier to develop. They are cheap money machines that convert people’s attention to profit.
Some say that it’s just a fun way to kill some time, that they are not so bad. But if all you can say is that they’re not so bad, maybe they’re not that good either.
Moreover, I’m not a fan of killing time, why would you kill the most precious thing you have? You should be enjoying your time on earth before it runs out. Just resting is better than selling your time to a multinational for a quick dose of dopamine.
No matter how you look at them, they add no value to your life.
So then, why are they so successful? And why do you keep playing them?
- They provide an easy way of forgetting problems: this could be something good if it wasn’t because they replace your problems with an anxiety-driven experience. The first hours are fun, but after a while, they stop making you feel good, but you will feel even worse when you are not playing them. What was initially a solution to your anxiety, soon becomes another reason for it.
- They are engineered to be addictive. If you’ve fallen on one of these games, it’s not your fault, it only shows that you’re human. They are designed to target people when they’re at their weakest and put them into a vicious cycle. The body mechanisms they target are the same triggered by addictive drugs.
- They flood the stores so nothing else can succeed. Google Play or Apple Store, it doesn’t matter; both are completely taken over. It’s hard to find something valuable among mountains of junk.
- They give a false impression of accomplishment. Their objective-based designs make you feel great when you’re playing. Reaching higher levels and objectives gives the sensation that you’re achieving things. When you stop playing, you realize you are not and you subconsciously feel bad, which makes your brain crave dopamine, which makes you play even more.
- They don’t look so bad: this is probably the nastiest of them all. They back up in the idea that they are just inoffensive games to have some fun. Of course, there are things much worse than some silly mobile games, but that doesn’t mean the harm they can inflict should be overlooked.
It doesn’t matter what your relationship with videogames is, you should stay away from those where you are the product. They will take as much of your time as they can, and give nothing back for it.