RIYADH: Concerns are growing in the Kingdom, as in many other countries, about the increasing prevalence of so-called microtransactions in video games.
These are real-money purchases a player makes within a game, either to progress or to improve the playing experience, for example by gaining new equipment or abilities. Despite the name, these purchases can range in price from a few cents to $100 or more.
A particular concern is the introduction of paid-for “loot boxes,” which add a random element to the purchase that has been likened to a form of gambling and is being investigated by authorities in a number of countries.
Video games are increasingly expensive to develop and support, and in an attempt to boost profits, many producers introduced microtransactions, both in paid-for games and those that can be downloaded for free on mobile devices and consoles such as the Xbox and PlayStation. In some games, the purchases provide bonus content, speed up progress or make the player more powerful, but in others it can become impossible to advance without purchasing items from the in-game store.
The loot box takes the idea a step further by offering players a chance to buy a random mystery item, sight unseen. When they open the virtual “box” they might be lucky and receive a rare item that will be a big help in the game, or they might receive a relatively common item that does not provide much of a benefit. Sometimes loot boxes are free gifts for players but in many cases, they have to pay real money for a chance to win a useful prize.
Lucky players who get a valuable loot box prize often share their good fortune on social media, which is a form of free advertising for the game that encourages other players to pay money and try their luck.
The use of loot boxes is controversial, with complaints from gamers and the media that it offers wealthier players an unfair advantage, and could lead to addiction. Console game “Star Wars Battlefront 2,” for example, faced a huge backlash when it was released in November 2017. To unlock certain features of the game, the player had to pay real money, on top of the $60 for the game itself. One website estimated that the total cost of buying all of these features to be $2,100.
The game does offer a chance to earn a virtual currency that can be used instead of real money, but it was estimated that a player would have to spend 40 hours playing the game to earn enough to unlock just one additional character. The makers of the game eventually revised the system and reduced the costs and time required.
Parents are becoming increasingly concerned about microtransactions and loot boxes, because of the amount of money and time their children are spending on games, which they fear is a form of addiction.
Malak Al-Harbi, a mother of a teenage boy, said her son became addicted and spent all his money on video game microtransactions.
“Ahmed used to get excited about these prizes so he used to only request microtransaction gift cards from me and his father; no other gift would satisfy him,” she said.
She did not realize her son was becoming addicted until his grades began to slip. At that point, she and her husband set strict ground rules for when and for how long their son could play video games, which resolved the problem.
Al-Harbi believes that, used in moderation, video games can be a good way to relieve stress but that it is easy for the situation to spiral out of control.
“My son at that time might have preferred virtual reality to the real world and that might be the reason why he was so addicted to these games, which led him to spend all of his savings on them,” she added. “I hope that the country will recognize this issue and enforce some rules and regulations for these games.”
A number of European countries have started to investigate whether loot boxes in video games are a form of gambling. Authorities in Saudi Arabia have yet to address the issue.
Dr. Aisha Karman, a psychologist, is concerned about the luck factor involved in loot boxes, and the effect the use of them in video games is having on children.
“This will create a sense of laziness in the kids’ personalities and will reduce their efforts to build their futures,” she said.
“This issue is affecting our children; they are not mature enough and their personalities are still evolving, so when they adopt such an idea at an early age it will impact them negatively. These games are targeting individuals that need care and protection, and as a result, the influence on them is stronger.
“I expect that there will be government action against these games here in Saudi Arabia, especially because they are considered harmful in some cases.”