Video games: What risks are the youngest really exposed to?

The most publicized questions around the uses of digital evoke moral panics that would particularly threaten young people. The most recent relate to the extension of the screen time which would make "cretin“. This consequence would result from the implementation of the principles of the attention economy at the heart of social networks. These online services are designed to retain the user, in order to record as much data as possible on his activity to build very fine behavioral categories. This would encourage the user to be locked into his preferences.

It is easy to understand the challenge of retaining the user on a communication service with relatively simple functionalities: sending a message, recommending an article, etc. But in the video game industry, the fun activity at the heart of the service is a priori more stimulating. Attention capture is best guaranteed by game designers, who have long since become experts in player restraint. The media coverage of the resulting moral panics therefore occurred very early. As such, research on video games allows us to take a step back from current discourses around debilitating retention or pathological addiction.

Online games make it possible in particular to discuss emerging and less pathologizing risks. These are linked to putting players to work to produce game content, managing their attention and monetizing game content. This commitment by video gamers, especially children, can sometimes lead to psychosocial risks or an economic overexploitation of their time. We will see later how these questions about the risks are linked to two rearrangements, between the economic model of online gaming and its software design.

The incentive to produce video game content retains the player

From the 2000s, the increase in the supply of games confirmed the entry into an era of consumption in abundance. The increase in competition is pushing manufacturers to adopt economic models based on player retention: they now pay a monthly subscription, then become regular buyers of “monetized” content: bonuses, equipment or visual modifications.

Two socio-economic risks result from this: on the one hand, the extension of playing time to make profitable its subscription or its bonuses with temporary validity. On the other hand, the appearance of difficulties in controlling micro-spending on “monetized” content made over the course of the game.

In an attempt to accentuate this “capture”, online games have already taken advantage since the 1990s of “modding”, which consists of an expert player modifying a video game and effectively extending its lifespan. The "mod" produced is for example a change in the appearance of the characters, new game possibilities, or even new unpublished geographies.

Attention management and economic valuation of game content produce new risks

In the 2010s, online games were redesigned following the model of online platforms functioning as two-sided markets : one side groups together the content-producing players, another side groups the consumer players. The process of "capturing value" from customers spread over both sides of the market is easier for the company to master. This model also makes it possible to better identify the risks incurred by players on each side.

The risks for player-consumers

On the side of players who consume content, the hybrid model offers “pay to play” access by subscription which offers privileges with “free to play” access free of charge and without advantage.

The latter subsidizes the rapid and massive entry of players, in order to accentuate the social ripple effect – the “network” effect – to crush competing platforms which then no longer manage to capture these players. already settled elsewhere. Three forms of risk exist on this side of the market.

A first psychosocial risk is accentuated on these platforms. Thanks to the constant analysis of player activity data, the platforms permanently personalize gaming experiences. Two gaming behaviors are then stimulated to the extreme: on the one hand, a constant encouragement to exploring novelty, often discovering unfamiliar and rarer play equipment (weapons, protections, consumables, etc.) An extreme dispersion of attention is therefore possible.

On the other hand, an incentive for very repetitive “farming” activities, i.e. the uninterrupted production of a large quantity of gaming equipment. With the hope of exchanging them for other, rarer ones and more efficient. Prolonged focusing of attention on quasi-mechanical activity is possible.

Both of these design mechanisms effectively restrain the player, but can put them at psychosocial risk. It is the product of a difficulty in interrupting gambling activity and a frustration in never achieving one's ends.

Second, a socio-economic risk is associated with “farming”. A penniless player who specializes in collecting in-game equipment can exchange these riches for another player's subscription time credits, so they are able to extend their subscription without ever paying. Staying in the game for free requires carrying out a particularly time-consuming fundraising activity often adopted by children without pocket money or from the working class. With possible encroachments on other times of life.

A third and final socio-economic and psychosocial risk can arise when defrauding other players is permitted. The scam often occurs at the moment of the exchange of virtual currencies, equipment, even game characters. This deviance can de facto be tolerated, because some companies are reluctant to punish gambler-scammers who are also their customers. This loss of economic capital is often perceived as being all the greater when the victim is young and has been able to spend time gambling. A psychosocial risk can also occur in players who suddenly lose all or part of the rare equipment accumulated on their character, sometimes at the cost of several years of play.

The risks for content producers

For some time now, companies have been providing gamers with software for creating free or paid content that is more or less efficient. Two types of contributors then coexist on the side of the producers.

First, older and experienced contributors, some of whom work in digital-related jobs. They are more likely to work as a team and create paid game content. A few seasoned teams take advantage of their weekends or their time off to produce the majority of the content popular with the players and pocket the bulk of the revenue donated by the platform. Here is for example for Roblox the number of players for the 100 most played mods and who are mainly paying.

In line with the work on digital labor, a risk of precariousness of the worker is identified here, because the content is developed by contributors without an employment contract.

Second, volunteer contributors are identified, often younger and inexperienced, some of whom are children. They produce most of the modifications to the game. This voluntary production induces two retention effects.

The first follows a logic of scattering: the multitude of free "mods" wins a membership limited to the restricted circle of relatives. For example, the content producer's school friends. But the sum of the contents reaches many players.

The second retention effect stems from a minority of free "mods" which unpredictably meet with great success with the greatest number, following a “long tail” dynamics.

A debate opens here around the definition of a new socio-economic risk: it often targets the few free contents which achieve unexpected success.

In their case, since the voluntary activity encouraged makes it possible to retain an incalculable number of players who will pay the company longer, should we not talking about the exploitation of free labor ? Or do we consider without dwelling on the rare successes of magnitude that passion legitimizes the disinterested connection of all the players involved in productive logics ?

Risks that go beyond attentional design

The nature of the risks incurred by online gamblers therefore turns out to go well beyond questions of attentional design. All of these risks are at the crossroads of game design choices and choices of game economic models. It therefore seems necessary to regulate these two elements together.

The case of child producers of paid content illustrates the approach to follow. Their successful content represents a tiny proportion of all player contributions. But their total count will increase with the massification of the audiences of gaming platforms equipped with "modding" tools aimed at children. As such, the example of the meteoric popularization of Roblox among American children should be carefully analyzed.

Finally, we can look at a legislative change in 2017 in France. It concerns child influencers who promote brands on Instagram or YouTube. The exception employment of children up to now in force in the middle of the show and the advertising is now open to them. It remains to ensure that this model is sufficiently protective and to ask the legislator to what extent it would be transposable to the remunerative activities of young participants in online video games.

Bruno Vetel, Senior Lecturer in Information and Communication Sciences, IAE Poitiers

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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