David Zendle (University of York)

The way that video games make money has changed. Beginning in the mid-2000s, a novel monetisation strategy began to emerge in which games were not treated as products, but instead as sales platforms in which players were able to pay small amounts of real-world money in exchange for a range of in-game products. In recent years, the goods and services sold in this manner have become diverse and range from randomised rewards; to cosmetic items that affect how a player looks; to purchases which give players advantages when it comes to their ability to succeed in-game.

This change has generated extraordinary profits for the video games sector. However, with this has come concerns about coercion, exploitation, and overspending. Indeed, players have repeatedly reported situations in video games in which they feel pressured into spending. Amongst others, these strategies include scenarios in which players are forced to pay real money to avoid negative in-game consequences (such as the loss of a valued item or in-game character); aggressive advertising practices; and the utilization of dark design patterns.

Industry self-regulation appears to be failing to keep track with the risks inherent to this emerging financial ecosystem. Despite the diversity of different -and potentially problematic- monetization schemes in video games, PEGI and ESRB (the organizations responsible for labelling in the video game industry) have introduced only two labels in total that relate to monetization, with evidence suggesting that the wording of these labels is not clearly understood by consumers. However, the potential for financial harm (and child financial harm in specific) is prevalent. Indeed, recent research has suggested that more than half of top-grossing mobile games are perceived as predatory by their players.

Thus, the video game industry is facing a crisis of transparency, with important repercussions for consumers and parents: When selecting a game to play or purchase, individuals have little ability to understand the risks inherent in long-term engagement with that game.

In GAME-SHIELD, we propose to help mitigate this lack of transparency by utilizing public review data to detect instances where players are reporting problems with the monetisation of a game, thus creating a living database of potential online financial harms in video games.