What Games Are: The Shady Side Of Games

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

There’s a reason why games and organized crime have often gone hand in hand. The thrill of the win, of achieving – often with money attached – has long proved a lure that society felt the need to control, like a drug. Games of chance, Poker, horse racing, sports betting and many others brought quixotic pleasures to many and bankruptcy (or worse) to some. There was always money to be made in the shadows for those happy to work in them.

That shady aspect still exists in the games industry today. While there are some highly ethical game makers out there who conduct their business in a manner befitting their ideals, there are also plenty who dupe and deceive to profit from an audience. Some are merely morally gray, maintaining that since games are a tough market and the cost of user acquisition is high, they have to be scrappy. Even if they don’t personally like it, it’s just how life is.

But beyond that typical red-ocean thinking, you can always rely on some developer or publisher to eventually take things too far. Like water flowing into every nook and cranny of a given platform, some will use their powers for good while others will figure out how to use a game as a form of arbitrage to extract as much value as possible. And you may say “well that’s business”, which it sometimes is. Yet shady actions can have far wider impact across the industry than is generally realized.

Take, for example, the practice of selling virtual goods in children’s games. Free-to-play games are very popular across all segments of the market, but the ability to sell items from within a game has the potential to deceive. While the notion of permitting players to financially participate as much as they want to is neat, many don’t fully realize what that means. Parents in particular are often unaware that their children know their iTunes passwords until big bills caused by their little angels buying $1000 worth of virtual game goods surface. And good luck getting a refund.

Because of course there are shady game makers out there who think it’s okay to put a $99 item in a game aimed at nine year olds. Of course they have an entirely self-reinforcing rationale for why this is permissible. Of course they use words like “choice” and “parental responsibility” to justify their actions. And yet they come across as weasels. In fact they ARE weasels. When this sort of nonsense goes on long enough, outsiders start to step in.

Government agencies like the UK’s Office of Fair Trading are starting to take a strong interest in free-to-play games. The OFT is an official consumer advocate group whose judgements can be far-reaching, and their recommendations often form the basis of legislation designed to clean up particularly egregious industries. This may serve as a wake-up call for the industry to self-regulate before regulation comes a-calling, or it may just be the tip of the iceberg. If, for example, the United States’ Department of Justice decides to do likewise, who knows how far that could go.

The problem for most of us who make games is that shady tactics tend to poison the well. The difference between the ideal of Facebook games (play together) and the practice (notify and spam repeatedly) is why social games stalled, for example. What could have been the most amazing platform change in gaming in a generation instead became a haven for sleazy lowball tactics designed to make a quick buck or an exit sale. Facebook’s early (and continuing) mistake lay in not taking an active-enough hand in managing their platform, preferring to let evolution sort it out.

The sale of crappy gamification “solutions” is another example. Through the work of writers like Sebastian Deterding, gamification has developed into a very interesting idea (with a variety of caveats, which I have written about before). Yet, regardless of where you stand on it, gamification has started to invert in large part because of the revelation that it mostly doesn’t work. There are many shady companies out there offering solutions that are little more than packs of GIFs and experience point tables, and of course that sours companies on trying gamification more than once.

It’s for reasons like these that I tend to strongly support Apple’s firm stance in governing the App Store. To some writers (like my Twitter buddy Keith Andrew at Pocketgamer), Apple’s control is only about maintaining profits and an iron-like grip on its customers, but I think there’s more to it than that. Apple takes an active hand in surfacing interesting apps because that’s important for the life of its platform, for the perception among users that iOS is where you go to find all the good stuff. The good stuff often needs a helping hand in the face of legions of developers hawking identical software with large advertising budgets.

Apple also bans or forbids certain apps on the basis of not wanting to dilute that conversation. Apps are not permitted to look like app stores, for example, or to use push notifications to advertise. Apps are not permitted to use incentivized installs. Apps are not permitted to deceive, in other words, or at the very least this is strong discouraged. And Apple seems as though it’s about to crack down on a number of apps that have been treading softly in these areas without directly violating them.

Apple seemed to realize early that shadiness would be problem that had to be curtailed or else the platform itself would be under threat. The risk to iOS of allowing it to be gamed or balkanized – as Facebook had – may not have been plainly apparent at the time, but in retrospect very much so. This is why the AppGratis-es of this world are heavily monitored. AppGratis appears to be just a typical example of needing to reign in wayward practices that would otherwise lead to bad places. Strong rules and enforcement is why iOS remains a vital development platform, and the one that users trust most. But of course, there are side effects.

Chief among them is censorship. As a medium, gaming is trying to come out of its teenage years and stop being regarded as mere entertainment. Some game makers want to feel that they stand shoulder to shoulder with writers, moviemakers and musicians in being regarded as artists, but regulation gets in the way.

In the old days it used to much worse. If you wanted to make games on a non-PC platform, such as a console, you had to factor in the risk that the platform might say no. The platform’s owners might not have even allowed you to have a dev kit to try unless your proposed game fit with their content strategy and guidelines.

These days platforms rarely exercise that kind of power and game making has become much more democratic, but there’s still a ways to go. Games like Sweatshop are banned according to content guidelines that would be considered unthinkable in book or music markets. The burgeoning zinester movement (artists who create games and related interactive art to explore a variety of issues) feels unwelcome and unlikely to become an Editor’s Choice because their work is not exactly PG13.

Unfortunately, like the Mob, shady game makers always be with us. There will always be someone who regards platforms like iOS as an opportunity to scavenge. There will always be someone who looks for the breaks, the wedges and the opportunity to behave like sharks. And they will always have a mealy mouthed rationale to justify their actions. None of us wants more censorship, or for games to be regulated to death. Most of us want the medium to thrive and grow and become as fully expressive. So as an industry it behoves us to establish codes of practice and police ourselves. Otherwise someone else will eventually do it for us.