Unfair play? Video games as exploitative monetized services: An examination of game patents from a consumer protection perspective

15 April 2020

Video games as a consumer product have changed significantly with the advent of in-game purchasing systems (e.g., microtransactions, ‘loot boxes’). This review examines consumer protections related to in-game purchasing by anticipating some of the potential design strategies that might contribute to higher risk consumer behavior. Attention was directed towards the analysis of patents for potential in-game purchasing systems, with 13 identified on Google Patents. The design features were analysed in relation to the consumer rights and guarantees described in the terms of use agreements of the patent assignees. The analysis revealed that some in-game purchasing systems could be characterized as unfair or exploitative. These systems describe tactics that capitalize on informational advantages (e.g., behavioral tracking) and data manipulation (e.g., price manipulation) to optimize offers to incentivize continuous spending, while offering limited or no guarantees or protections (e.g., refund entitlement), with the potential to exploit vulnerable players (e.g., adolescents, problematic gamers). These findings are critically discussed in relation to behavioral economics, addiction psychology, and the clinical conceptualization of gaming disorder. Appropriate policy and consumer protection measures, psychologically informed interventions, and ethical game design guidelines are needed in order to protect the interests and wellbeing of consumers.