Meet The 19-Year-Old Who Spent Over $17,000 On Microtransactions

At the height of the controversy surrounding microtransactions in Star Wars Battlefront 2, a Reddit user who goes by the name Kensgold posted an open letter to publisher EA and other developers in the video game industry. "I am 19 and addicted to gambling," he wrote. Kensgold wasn't talking about roulette tables or online poker. He was talking about spending over $17,000 on in-game purchases over the last several years.

Kensgold, who asked that we not use his real name, shared with Kotaku his bank statements and receipts proving that he had indeed spent $US13500.25 ($17,827) in games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Smite and The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth over the past three years. His post was a plea to the people who design and sell games to take note of the effect microtransactions in games can have on the small population of people who are especially susceptible to them. He includes himself in this group, and while he's legally an adult now, he says the lure of spending money for rewards in his favourite games started when he was only 13. The first was a browser city-building game Kensgold remembers being similar to Clash of Clans. "I think I spent around $30 [$AU40] on it but I was also very young and had actually no income whatsoever," he said during a phone interview.

A year later, he had moved on to the now defunct The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth. Released in 2013, the smartphone game was notorious for its repetitive grind and pay-to-win microtransactions. In it, players built up a city by harvesting resources, buying armies, and earning upgrades to make their units better. Players could progress faster by paying money, which was incentivised by the game's competitive aspect. Players could launch attacks on one another's cities, making the power of their defences and armies a matter not just of pride but survival. In order to protect their own resources from getting looted by other players, buying Mithril, Kingdoms of Middle-earth's in-game currency, was a must. It's part of what got the game trashed by reviewers (back when people were still reviewing pay-to-win mobile games).

Kensgold guesses that the players at the top of Kingdoms of Middle-earth's leaderboard spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to stay there, even sending Google Play cards to other players in their guilds to help boost the strength of their overall teams. As a result of these "whales", the gaming industry's term for individual players who contribute a disproportionate amount of a game's microtransaction revenue, other players who wanted the chance to be competitive would have to spend as much as they could as often as possible. In Kensgold's case, this meant hundreds of dollars a month. In the winter of 2015, he'd spent around $US800 ($1056) in Kingdoms of Middle-earth purchases. Over the course of that entire year, thanks to that and other microtransaction-heavy games such as Clash of Kings and Age of Warring Empire, he spent $US4116 ($5435).

"It never feels like you're making a good decision when you spend that hundred dollars," he said. "But at the time I was like, 'What else am I going to spend it on?' There weren't really any repercussions to enforce like, 'Yo, idiot, stop.'"

At the time, Kensgold was a Year 10 student in high school with no car and a part-time job at Panera. Of the $US300-400 ($396-528) paycheck he received every two weeks, he reckons he spent about 90 per cent of it on in-app purchases. His grandparents started to worry and his mum tried to shut off their internet to stop him from playing, but with a smartphone and a 3G connection, circumventing those obstacles was easy. He even got a second job to fuel his addiction.

Kingdoms of Middle-earth is one of a number of mobile games built around in-app purchases.

A list of Kensgold's bank transactions for the last three years shows over $US10,000 ($13,205) in debit payments to places including Steam, Google Play and Blizzard.

What ultimately threw Kensgold off Kingdoms of Middle-earth wasn't a dramatic intervention by friends or family. The game's developer, Kabam, sold it off to a Chinese company in January of 2016. That company proceeded to make changes to the game that drove fans to abandon it en masse, according to Kensgold. With most of his in-game friends gone, he had no more incentive to keep buying upgrades and competing.

Instead, his high school friends started to get into PC gaming. Kensgold saved up to buy a better computer and by Year 11 he had moved from spending money on smartphone games to spending it on microtranasctions in games such as Smite and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which let you pay real money on cosmetic items for characters.

At the height of his interest in Smite, Kensgold said he owned over 300 of the game's character skins. But those skins were purely cosmetic - they had no affect on gameplay. After spending all that money just to stay competitive in Kingdoms of Middle-earth, why did he still feel the drive to spend money on games he could otherwise enjoy for nearly free?

"I think it stems from the fact that I had set a precedent in those mobile games that a hundred dollars isn't all that much," Kensgold said. "It's not a really big deal if I see that skin and I really want it, because it looks awesome. And if I just drop 100 bucks I'm pretty much guaranteed to get that kind of thing." He'd see a friend playing a character in a costume that he didn't have and immediately feel the urge to spend the $10, $20 or $50 it cost to get it. It was all too familiar by that point to give him pause.

"When you're about to click the button going 'Do you agree to spend $100?' you don't really get the feeling of that low kind of gut punch that I get now."

Kensgold doesn't play Smite or Counter-Strike Go any more. After finally talking with his therapist about his spending habits earlier this year, Kensgold made a decision to stop gambling with CS:GO skins and liquidate his collection, put the remaining money back in his bank account, and begin moving down a different path - one in which he tried to keep microtransactions and in-game purchases at arm's length.

"I had to get up the nerve to ask for help," Kensgold said. "To get a therapist to lay it out for me, like 'This is what you're doing, this is how you can help yourself, here are the tools to help you.'"

That was enough to help him turn things around. "You don't really expect it to help as much as it does," he said. The original post on Reddit was his way of trying to share that realisation with other people. The debate around loot boxes and microtransactions has a tendency to focus on the feud between faceless corporations and nameless masses of fans, as it did in the case of Battlefront 2. For Kensgold, though, the issue is much more personal, and has to do with the population of people like him - whales - for whom microtransactions can become addictive.

Kensgold has spent thousands of dollars on buying and gambling CS:GO skins.

"The majority of the reason that I made my post was not really to slam EA or any of the companies that do this, but to share my story and to show that these transactions are not as innocent as they really appear to be," Kensgold said. "They can lead you down a path. It's not like buying a stick of gum at the store."

For that reason, Kensgold sometimes has to tell friends he can't play a certain game with them, like Black Desert: Online for instance. As the backlash against in-game purchases has grown, it's become easier to explain his aversion to these games to people. "But for a while it was difficult to tell your friends that you can't play with them just because of the way the game is implemented," he said.

Despite all of the money he's spent, and all of the long hours he worked to earn it in the first place, Kensgold hasn't been able to quit in-game purchases completely. He's played PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds since the beta, but having collected most of the game's loot crate items before the developers began selling them for real money, he's managed not to fall into that game's trap. In the end, it's really just about being aware of his vulnerability and doing his best not to ever let it get that bad again.

It's also about making sure that other fans and potential whales are kept aware. If more people realise how destructive microtransactions can be, Kensgold thinks that will help prevent others from dropping thousands of dollars on digital power-ups and cosmetics. "It's not just a one time purchase. It never is."

WATCH MORE: Gaming News


Comments

    Not avocado on toast but optional cosmetic items that hinder millennials from purchasing property...

      I always get the optional bacon for my avo toast, and sometimes the haloumi. I'm too far gone.

        That combo sounds like heaven on a plate!

          That would be $14.98 for the optional bacon.

    A few years ago I went to a game industry conference called GameTech (this was during the Facebook game boom). Some companies were shameless in admitting exactly how they built games to attract whales etc and had absolutely no regard for the actual humans playing them (why would they?). iirc there was one CEO who boasted that they built an internal system that let them fine-tune in-app purchases like they were trading stocks. Left me feeling pretty disgusted about that side of the industry. Happy to say that those kinds of companies were the minority at the conference though.

      They just see it as free money. That's one of the problems with the capitalist system. You invest in a product and make as much money as you legally can out of it. If you discover a way to get more people to buy the product, that's great. It increases your ROI.

      Social consequences of selling a product aren't generally given the attention they need, apart from flagging them as possible PR problems.

        We've 'progressed' to the point where it's frowned upon to use your physical strength to take half of someone's money away from them, but lauded if you use deceit and manipulation to take half of their money from them.

          There's so many things in society that make very little sense when you take a step back to think about it.

          The fact that we allow systemic manipulation of people and get them addicted to games to then milk more money from them baffles me.

          Just to play devil's advocate on that for a moment:

          Manipulation is how the world works. Sales and marketing, politics, even convincing you we should eat at Maccas instead of Hungry Jacks is manipulation. For businesses, persuading you to think you need or want their product has been the name of that game for centuries. Game companies are neither the first, the last nor the most egregious.

          Is there deceit in loot boxes? As long as the odds aren't individually manipulated (and some companies probably do do this), as long as it's stated to be chance up front I'm not sure deceit plays a part.

            It was really more of a broader gripe, thinking about the nature of collusion, manipulation - both psychological and market - monopolies and other factors.

            We do have some consumer laws to protect consumers from the sneaky, the manipulative, the deceitful... we protect against outright lies and from unbreakable anti-competitive cartels. We acknowledge on some level as a society, through our laws, that there should be some kind of fairness, that power is not just physical. And we place controls on gambling, based on underlying principles of how dangerous it can be. But why? And does it go far enough?

            This needs closer re-examination, I feel. Exploitation is what we're talking about, here. It comes in many forms, and it seems to me that we assign disproportionate concern to the more overt, physical forms of exploitation than we do to safeguarding consumers against the more insidious, manipulative forms that seem to, on the broadest scale, damage the greatest number of people for the greatest amount of extracted reward. It seems to me that we are vulnerable to more than what we collectively protect ourselves against.

              Regulation starts to dip into the murky world of politics and particularly the balance between socialist and laissez-faire policies both economically and socially. I'm somewhat pro-socialism myself, but I'd say even I have issues with the boundary between what the state decides is in our best interests and the competing notions of individual choice and culpability. Things like gun control have an obvious benefit to my mind, and of course anti-monopoly and anti-scam laws produce a net benefit, but I'm not convinced that's the case here. This situation strikes me as needing a much lighter touch, not something that tends to happen when knee-jerk reactions are driving emotive discourse.

        The dirtiest word in the English language is "legal". It doesn't matter if something is immoral, unreasonable, exploitative, vile, or even just plain WRONG, as long as it's "legal" there's nothing anyone can do to stop you from doing it. All you need is a complete lack of conscience, which is fortunately not a handicap for gaming industry executives.

      Unfortunately we have this kind of behaviour and attitude in a lot of other industries as well.

      Last edited 30/11/17 10:51 am

        That's a good point actually, sometimes forget to think outside my own industry. :)

      When I found out (during a game development course) that it's not unusual for developers to hire teams of psychologists to keep people addicted to their subscription-based games, it kind of ruined MMOs for me.

      I was pretty heavily addicted to WoW at the time and the realisation I was being manipulated pissed me off the the point that I cancelled my subscription rather quickly. I've tried to get into various MMOs since but I always realise what's going on and stop playing after a couple of months.

        Not to get you down, but almost all games employ psychological manipulation to keep you playing. It's somewhat integral to the nature of games to operate on a risk-reward basis and stimulate reward centres in the brain on success that encourages you to keep playing. Television shows and franchise films do the same thing too.

        MMOs aren't markedly different in terms of design, the only real difference is if it's subscription based they have an ongoing revenue stream. But they also tend to have a lot more content than one-time purchase games as well. At ~$15/month they're one of the cheapest per-hour forms of entertainment around.

          Not at all - that's completely true. It was news to me at the time though (some 9 or 10 years ago).

          Subscription-based MMOs are still ruined for me though. I find it very hard to enjoy them after I inevitably question whether some task or quest I'm trying to complete might in some way be drawn out artificially just so I feel obliged to pay up a little while longer.

    I find it hard to have sympathy though. Yes games exploit people with poor impulse control, and they should behave ethically and not do that. But I still feel the blame for the over spend is on both parties.

      Would you apply the same reasoning to a crack dealer and their victims that can't shake the addiction?

        Yes. I'm not saying it's all or nothing - both sides contribute to this being a problem.

        A drug addict would be very hard placed to shake their addiction, and a dealer flaunting drugs in their face would definitely be acting terribly. And yes, addiction is a complex and powerful driver which often pushes people to make very bad decisions.

        But they are still decisions. Bringing it back to gaming and gambling, there are a whole series of decisions in between the initial desire to gamble, and the final act of paying. And at each and every one of those decisions, an individual can make a different choice.

        I'm not saying it's an easy choice for an addict, but saying they share none of the blame is also overly simplistic.

        Also, admitting that the ultimate decision lies in their hands is empowering - it highlights the fact that addicts can pull themselves out of bad cycles, and that they're not totally beholden to their dealers. Shifting all the blame to the supplier end implies that addicts make no choices, have no power and cannot save themselves.

        Also, please don't take my comments as excusing this type of predatory behaviour by game dev's. It's scummy practice targeting vulnerable people. But a real solution would need to tackle both the supplier issues and the consumer addiction.

          I totally agree. The issue needs to be tackled on both sides. Help the addicts and put measures in place that prevent predatory behavior which causes more people to get addicted.

      Becoming addicted to gambling/gaming is not a choice though. I find it hard to blame someone for something they have no control over.

        I'm not trying to be heartless, but TRYING something that you should KNOW is addictive IS a choice. I've never been in any danger of becoming addicted to drugs because I've always known better than to even TRY drugs. Never even been tempted because I know they're dangerously addictive and unhealthy. Same with alchohol- I have been known to drink occasionally, but never heavily enough to get me drunk, not even once, and now that my money is tight and I have to cut back on luxuries I've simply stopped spending even a cent on booze. You DO have to actually take responsibility for your mistakes.

          It's super easy to say 'just avoid' when you're talking about something that is physiologically addictive (drugs, beer etc) - the warning signs are obvious. But it's a bit different for things that pose problems for people with addictive personalities but aren't inherently addictive - psychological addiction can be produced in response to literally anything. What companies are trying to do is invisibly assist in the creation of that response in people. I'm not discounting individual responsibility entirely, but social responsibility is just as important in my view.

          To put it another way, if someone would not otherwise have become addicted to something, but does become addicted because the thing has been deliberately altered to be more addictive than it should be, how much responsibility lies with the individual end user?

    I'd love to see some kind of rating system for games on the boxes / online, clearly visible, that shows what kind of microtransactions are involved.

    5 star games could be games with no additional purchase needed, 4 star would be season pass games where the season pass costs less than $40, 3 star season pass games where season pass is more than $40, 2 star for cosmetic microtransactions and 1 star for pay to win.

    It would also be great if they had to publish info on things like the average additional amount people pay, the highest people pay, etc, so games like Kingdoms above you could see that people are spending a fortune on winning so you could avoid playing that game before you get hooked.

    Why don’t people have willpower and common sense? Complete stupidity.

    Except he's not addicted to gambling because not all microtransactions are RNG based, and even those that are still aren't gambling because gambling has a risk of loss and there's no risk of loss with things like loot boxes.

      Where are you getting this, 'gambling must have a risk of loss' thing from?

      Even if it were true, it wouldn't need to be a total loss to qualify. Spending $x to get a reward that's worth less than $x but more than $0 is still a loss.

    I feel sorry for the new generation of gamers having to deal with micro transaction, DLC, gigs & gigs of patches for download.

    Remember when your mum bought a game from the shop and you just played it without any hassle....

      Microtransactions and DLC aside, patches are the price paid for the incredibly complex game systems people expect from high end titles these days. They didn't exist in the days you're talking about because games were considerably less complex then, and rather than the mostly standardised environment today, back then you had to dick around with VESA drivers, Roland audio and extended memory settings yourself.

        Christ that takes me back. Having to configure IRQs and creating .bat files to set all of the parameters needed to run Tie Fighter / Space Quest / C&C.

    I rekon I spend about $20 a month on micro transitions in mobile games? I don’t have the time to grind, but I really want to play what they offer to the fullest.

    I feel bad about it but it’s time vs money. If I don’t spend the money I won’t have the time.

      This is just another tactic they use, artificially increasing the grind to increase the likelihood you will exchange money for time.

      Last edited 30/11/17 2:06 pm

    We have to stop the gambling mechanic that they are using to target kids and vulnerable people that buy these 'games'. We have a lot of momentum going in the right direction and there's now a subreddit /r/GamersAgainstGambling that hopefully can organize all the people that are sick of these disgusting business models that prey on addiction mechanics

    We can keep making meme's or talking on the internet about how bad it is, or we can fix it. Public action does work, and can make a world of difference and honestly fix the future of AAA gaming.

    Some people have poor impulse control. It’s not something that they can willingly shut off. Addiction is tough, and there are no easy answers.
    Pay to win and micro transactions are truly the worst thing to happen to games in years and imo it should be heavily regulated to protect children and vulnerable people, who these things are undoubtably marketed towards.

    Good on this guy for (eventually) realising he has a problem, seeking help and trying to help others. At the end of the day NO ONE IS FORCED TO BUY ANYTHING from these companies. I've bought loot boxes in Overwatch and bought "digital deluxe" versions of games. I don't blame these companies for my purchases, I as a consumer chose to make these purchases.

    I dunno, man. I probably would've spent that money on other things, but I'm kinda weird like that.

    Kudos to Kotaku for having the balls to publish this article.

    Edit: Kensgold stay strong and thanks for sharing your experience.

    Last edited 30/11/17 5:27 pm

    I sympathise with this fellow's issue, as he's plainly displaying irrational behaviour. I'm glad he's (she's?) getting help.

    However.

    Firstly, the comparisons between this and a genuine drug of dependence are simply woeful. Ice loses you your money, your health and your mind. Lootboxes is but one of those, and in only very very very few individuals. Secondly, it is in no way coercive to provide a product for people to buy. Comparisons to stealing lunch money by force are arrant nonsense. Thirdly, if someone will pay for something utterly valueless, or borderline so, and infinite in scope and negligible to produce ad infinitum, I think it very hard to argue that this is not sensible business, and in fact almost textbook idealistic capitalism, that until recently would have been the stuff of myth or theoretical argument.

    I'm a gamer. I don't like micro transactions. But in my view they're no more nefarious than our hobby overall, or any other vice. What is so different between this and a steam library of 900 games? A pack of cigarettes? A beer? A coffee each morning? All are of arguable artifice, all are arguably useless, and all are in control of a third party. Yet I don't bang on about how my game purchasing addiction is Gabe's fault, my need for a buzz due to the local barista, or my drinking due to the good people at Tanqueray... And I'm spending what I can comfortably afford.

    He's right. It's not like buying a stick of gum.

    But it's a shitload like buying a whole lot of other stuff, in my view. These are wants, not needs.

Join the discussion!