After putting out a public survey asking for people “who play video games too much”, the ABC’s Four Corners program has announced their investigation into video games will air next Monday night — and microtransactions are being directly targeted.
The show, called Are You Being Played?, begins with a quote from someone saying they’d spent $4000 on in-game microtransactions. It then features footage of in-game items, Overwatch loot boxes, and footage of a Star Wars: Battlefront 2 loot box being opened.
Senator Jordon Steele-John says “those mechanisms are predatory,” which is likely a redux of his comments from when the Greens Senator chaired the inquiry into microtransactions. It doesn’t sound like the ABC report will focus exclusively on microtransactions — there’s some commentary from someone who talks about being immersed in the game world, and another person saying they are “seeing families being torn apart”.
The original survey from Four Corners originally asked participants about the time they spent playing video games, whether it stopped them from enjoying other activities and if gaming had impacted their relationships and friendships. It was posted towards the tail-end of the pandemic in Australia, when gaming had been a lifeline for many stuck in isolation for months at a time, or those helping to connect with other friends and family while staying safe.
But it sounds like the ABC program has pivoted somewhat from their original angle of video games ruining lives to microtransactions and loot boxes ruining lives. And considering all the red flags and warnings from academics and regulators about loot boxes over the last few years, that’s entirely fair.
The Four Corners program will air live on the ABC on Monday, May 3 at 8.30pm AEST, although it will be uploaded to ABC iView and the Four Corners website after publication.
Here’s the full description of the program:
Are you being played? What you need to know about the business of video games
“The video games industry is in the business of manufacturing fun, and video games are fun for many people, but for a small percentage of people it can be misery.” Psychiatrist
Across the country, millions of Australians of all ages, play video games every day. They’re among hundreds of millions of gamers across the world. Globally, the industry is worth an estimated $US175 billion, which is more than Hollywood and the music industry combined. From smart phones to consoles and desktops, gamers immerse themselves in imaginary worlds which can be far more appealing than real life.
“You’ve become so immersed in the game world and what’s going on that, that is your world and that’s your priority.” Gamer
Growing research shows many gamers struggle to switch off and can find themselves hooked on their virtual universe. The discussion about gaming and whether it can cause harm is often reduced to a simplistic debate. On Monday Four Corners goes deeper, bringing together gamers, major industry players and psychologists in an investigation that reveals the manipulative techniques used in many games.
“We are talking here about potent psychological mechanisms and not everybody has a background in human motivation or human psychology, so they won’t necessarily be aware of these things.” Video game researcher
The investigation began when Four Corners asked gamers, to share their experiences. Thousands responded and some of them have chosen to tell their stories publicly.
“I could see it was manipulating me, but I was still participating.” Gamer
While there’s often concern about the effects of gaming on kids, there are plenty of adults, including parents, who are at risk.
“Getting the kids ready for school was definitely a problem, I was really tired, I was often tired, I would fall asleep accidentally and once I missed a school pick-up.” Gamer
The program features interviews with high profile industry figures who have worked on some of the biggest video games on the planet. They discuss the ethical minefield that game design can create.
“You don’t want to just think about revenues and think about profiting at the expense of players and their fun and, and their best interests. So to me it’s really an ethical consideration and the line has been blurry.” Game design consultant
Many of these techniques are driven by aggressive business models. It’s not just a question of keeping players in the game for longer, it’s also about enticing them to part with real world cash for a virtual pay off.
“Some of the big players in the mobile video game space have just gone, “Oh my God, this is a license to print money.” Senator
With the growth of artificial intelligence and the mining of data from social media accounts, game analysts say players are often unaware of how they’re being manipulated.
“I think we’re already at a point where the games have become extremely sophisticated, and in some ways, players are not always aware of how much the game is actually playing them. Video game researcher
The program provides players with valuable insights, showing gamers what they’re up against.
“I think we need to help gamers understand what’s going on under the hood.” Video game researcher