Are Free-to-Play Games Evil? Reopening the Debate on Exploitation
Free-to-play games have been dominating the mobile market since 2011. They originated from the world of Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMO).1 Farmville (2009) by Zynga quickly became the most popular game on Facebook; in 2012, it was overnumbered by Candy Crush Saga by Kind Digital Entertainment2. King has a long history in online poker and browser games since its formation in 2003 in London; the rise of social and mobile gaming has lead to its spectacular success, an IPO in 2014 and acquisition by Activision Blizzard in 2016. Another big player on the free-to-play market, the Finnish company Supercell, has reached comparable levels of popularity with Clash of Clans (2014) and Clash Royale (2016) and later was acquired by Tencent, the Chinese megacorporation and the publisher of several top grossing mobile games in 2020. There are many relatively smaller competitors on the market today, but it tends to depend on large investments into player acquisition and long-running casual MMO games for commercial success.
Free-to-play apply a variety of techniques to persuade their players to continuously pay for virtual experiences. It is commonly agreed that some of these techniques are manipulative and ethically questionable.3 It is difficult, however, to evaluate how exploitative they are: unlike the real labour market,4 players are free to leave at any time, which they often do, without any consequences.
Since their early success almost 10 years ago, free-to-play games have evolved into massive sophisticated machines that transform the invested time and attention of its players into various forms of value. Defendants of this business model argue that free games cannot survive based on voluntary donations; besides, most of the effort of the game developers goes into making free-to-play games fun, not exploitative 5. Free-to-play games create new relationships between players, developers and publishers, and they may even be beneficial for players, as free-to-play games are constantly developing to fit their needs. Game design and marketing becomes intertwined to assure that the game will remain financially sustainable, but is this relationship exploitative?
Fair Games, No Exploitation?
What makes a fair free-to-play game? One possible approach practiced in the industry is to prevent pay-for-win situations. Simply put, a game should not be allowed to be “beaten simply by spending cash”,6 as players themselves universally recognize such mechanics as unfair. The ethical critique of exploitation in free-to-play games is more vocal than the economic one, but less productive, as free-to-play games indeed are free for the majority of their players. “‘Free’ is hardly a bad quality in itself, and high rates of spending seem more worthy of our aspiration than our disgust”, as a game designer Edward McNeill writes in his partial rebuttal of free-to-play games.7 Another game designer and philosopher Chris Bateman uses free-to-play games as a case of potentially manipulative software that can still be ethical.8 Bateman agrees that microtransactions in free-to-play games can be fair and reasonable, and calls for the analysis beyond the usual cliches of capitalist critique. He personally refers to Spry Fox, a game company known for its casual free-to-play hit TripleTown (2010) and an excellent word game AlphaBear (2016), also free to play. It even was nominated for a BAFTA Games Award.
For game designers of free-to-play games, the (not always attainable) goal is to preserve the integrity of the playing experience for paying and non-paying players alike. Crossy Road (2014) is one of a few exemplary free-to-play games that are commonly considered fair. This game relies on a combination of two main monetisation techniques: selling 'vanity items' such as skins and rewarded advertising. The latter is considered mutually beneficial for players and game publishers,9 and, in some ways, fair.
Foreseeing the success of ethical free-to-play games such as Crossy Road, a British game designer and producer Oscar Clark published a book on free-to-play design in 2014.10 One of his goals was to explain “why we can no longer afford to simply build a game, throw it over to the marketing team or publisher, and then hope that someone buys it”.11 “With a freemium game we are no longer selling the gameplay itself, or even the reasons to return to the game. We have to focus on selling things that players want to help improve their playing experience”.12 It is also important to note that inciting players to ”want” certain things is also a part of the process – probably, the most important part.
Facebook’s own research team found out that many gamers would rather watch advertisements than pay real money for a game: “57% of gamers who haven’t paid to avoid ads are fine with seeing advertising to keep the game free”.13 The same study also points at the main difference between disruptive and rewarding advertising: unsurprisingly, players give a game a higher rating if they can decide for themselves whether to watch ads or not. With this approach, retaining the agency of a player is the key principle of a fair free-to-play game.
To give players back their agency in free-to-play games, McNeill suggests that the publisher should envision a hypothetical customer who is making an informed and rational decision and ask himself if this customer would play his game.14 Most players do make informed and rational decisions and abandon a free-to-play game if it does not deliver the experience they want. A much more interesting question is why others stay.
In this article, I want to perform a Marxist critique of exploitation. Even though this sepcific understanding of “exploitation” based on the labour theory of value (LTV) is fiercely debated and rather controversial in the real world,15 it is applicable to economies of free-to-play games in a way that may teach us something about both free-to-play games and Marxism.
Resurrecting Marx, Again
Recently, Ernesto Screpanti provided an updated review of the labour theory of value for the contemporary age16. He also has reviewed the most common lines of critique. For instance, Marx states that the value of a product equals to the amount of abstract labour put into its production, but we know that the prices of goods on the market are shaped by completely unrelated processes. Besides, even if we agree with Marx, it seems impossible to calculate the fair price and the corresponding compensation to the workers based on the amount of abstract man-hours, without taking the material conditions into account. In short, there is no material basis for value, at least, in the material world... but, as we will see, virtual worlds may be different.
One example is farming games, where the time spent by the player is directly transformed into increasingly valuable crops, products and tools in the game. Another, and much more critical, example is o-called incremental games such as (2013)17 or AdVenture Capitalist (2014).18 These games make this exchange of time for value direct and transparent, simultaneously commenting on the inner logic of capitalism and entertaining their players with the alluring phantasma of exponentially growing capital. All and all, popular free-to-play games are usually self-aware in regard to the capitalist mode of production.
Monster Legends (2014)19 is a comparatively low-entry turn-based card battle game owned by a major Spanish game developer Socialpoint. At the moment of writing, there are over 730 monster cards that are divided in several ‘books’ and ‘generations’. The advantage in the battle is usually on the side of the players who own the cards from the latest generation, but there is also a strong incentive to own as many different monsters as possible, thanks to the breeding mechanics and timed challenges. Finally, Monster Legends has certain elements of a farming game: monsters produce gold, and little farms transform gold into food for monsters.
What is amazing about such games as Monster Legends is that they provide an easily understandable and comprehensible illustration of how surplus value is created in attention economies. Regardless of the exact mechanic and genre, the players spends a certain amount of time in the game and invests their attention. This is their 'labour , being involved in the game, their attention and the time of their life. I can attest that in my worst days, I would spend daily up to 4 hours in it. Naturally, players spend their attention on breeding, feeding and upgrading monsters and pitting them against enemies - this is what constitutes Monster Legends as a game. Apart from these in-game activities, players also give some attention to advertising within the game, which is implemented in a comparatively ‘fair’, non-intrusive way. There is a Monster Cinema, or Monsterwood on the Monster Island, where players go to watch 15 to 30 second videos from ad networks such as Vungle, Adcolony, Google’s Admob or Facebook’s own ad platform. Different rewards are offered every day and sometimes randomized through a fortune wheel mechanic, but the most common reward is monster upgrades (cells). The surplus attention that players give to the game while watching ads creates surplus value for the game publisher, who receives money for ad placements through specialized networks and platforms. In such an arrangement, consuming the advertising becomes indistinguishable from consuming the product itself.
Rewarded pay-per-view advertising is just one of the many techniques to gain profit for game publishers. Monster Legends pplies a long list of monetization techniques accumulated since its launch in 2014. It uses every trick from the free-to-play marketing book: apart from a traditional monster shop, there are paid speed-ups for different steps of progress in the game and an abundance of different ‘soft (earnable) currencies’ 20 and tokens that are collected in countless different ways. However, even an experienced player with a considerable in-game wealth will always lack a small amount of resources to get a particularly valuable reward in the game. This ‘deficit’ can be compensated either by paying real-life money or by playing extra hours (and this is the reason why there are ‘timers’ in casual farming games, that make the players return into the game, for example, every 4 or 8 hours, to be eligible for a reward).
(a relatively simplified explanation and critique can be found in Serpanti).21 This abstract and generally unprovable idea still helps us to explain why free-to-play games feel exploitative. It would seem fair to invest a reasonable amount of time into grinding and watching ads to get the desired monster or its upgrade - this is how synthetic words are supposed to work, at least, in the libertarian vision of game economist Edward Castronova.22 However, there is always either a lack of ‘soft currency’ or an artificial shortage of resources. Players would always need to play extra hours – for example, wake up in the middle of the night to do extra ‘work’ in the game – to accumulate the exact amount of value that could be exchanged for a new monster. Alternatively, they could pay real money to replenish this deficit, and this offer often comes at the emotional peak of the game. This is the most criticized feature of free-to-play games.
This lack, or shortage, is obviously pre-programmed by the game developers, sometimes directly required by the game publishers who carry on the marketing activities. They do it in the same manner as hypothetical factory owners pressure heir workers to spend more time on production than it was initially agreed (this pressure, and the trade unions that responded to it, is the reason why some of us enjoy a short and undemanding 40 hour working week. Of course, it does not apply to the game industry with its ‘crunch culture’, where 80 hour working weeks are possible). 23 Every extra hour creates surplus value for the (digital) factory owners in this purely abstract and yet widely accepted version of digital capitalism. At large, the whole system is designed in such a way that players enter it consensually, but then are systematically undercompensated, so the surplus value can be extracted from them. This is different from the previous ‘one-time purchase’ model, when players would simply buy a physical copy of a game or paid a fixed price for a subscription: in such a case, they expect, and normally get, the proportional and, hence, just, amount of gaming experience to sustain their desired level of fun.
The microeconomy of the game becomes even more complicated if we look at all the variety of economic relations around it. Social games are played on Facebook, which means that Facebook also takes its share from their revenue. We should not forget the salaries of the actual game developers to maintain and further develop the game Artists who create hundreds of unique monster cards based on short-term agreements are probably at the furthest end of this food chain, even though their art is the main reason for me to choose this particular game among others. I suggest that this is where real exploitation of creative labour may take place, but this is the topic for a different investigation.
Allow Me to Parade My Benefit
As we stated at the beginning, it is believed that, in a fair free-to-play game, a paying player does not have an advantage over a non-paying user. The same goes for ad-watching players. But is this really so? In reality, money from ad sellers is an unevenly distributed resource that perfectly matches global inequalities. Let me illustrate this with my own experience of playing.
I am currently conveniently based in Finland, also home to Clash of Clans and Angry Birds. The inventory of advertising videos offered to me in Monsterwood is mostly selling me massive multiplayer games similar to Monster Legends. There are also seasonal campaigns: for example, there was a massive ad campaign for a food delivery service Wolt during the quarantine and a rather disturbing video about prevention of in Finnish since then.
For an experiment I changed my IP address and my location to the state of my citizenship, Belarus, and my selection of rewarded ads also changed. Instead of expensively looking advertisements for games, I now saw simple ads for Facebook’s own marketing services. Then ads for a VPN service started showing up: because there is a revolution going on in my country, the authorities are blocking the internet and people use VPN a lot. .
For the needs of this paper, it is more important that, in Belarus, I would have access to a much smaller and cheaper inventory of ads, which probably would not allow me to grind as much as I do in Finland. As a paying user based in a first world country with high returns per player, I can get more work and earn more. For instance, I can watch enough videos to craft a powerful monster of the latest generation, a mind-controlling “Slugazoid” or a scary plague doctor “Atrox”, in just one or two days.
There is another, even more striking benefit that principally changes my class status in the game. The main class divide inside free-to-play games is between non-paying and paying players, and I belong to the latter. And even more: I have spent almost 50 euro on new monsters during the quarantine. These monsters are not much better than the ones obtainable for free - it was more a matter of vanity to me, as most of this money was spent to build a monster glam rock band (and it is awesome). However, this seemingly meaningless enterprise has elevated me to a different class of free-to-play game players. I am a High Value Payer now, in terms of ad buying and selling on Facebook.24 It means that advertisers can target me as a part of an especially lucrative cohort of gamers. They are particularly encouraged to invest more money to acquire players like me, because it promises bigger returns of investment. As Facebook’s own study presents it, the average revenue per high value paying player is comparatively higher even though the price of a targeted ad placement is also significantly high.25 This also affects the value and quality of offers that I get in the game for free.
The Pleasure of Being Evil
This is not an endorsement of Monster Legends, neither do I recommend start playing it in 2020. Same as with most free-to-play games, this one only rewards those who have already made large investments of time, labour and money into it, as my case clearly shows. The pay-off is relatively small (if owning a monster glam rock band is not what you were craving for, and there are probably better games for that, especially in Japan).
The guild system of Monster Legends can offer even more food for thought than its simulation of capitalist production. Guilds (‘teams’) afford interaction between players and introduce an interesting playground to negotiate shared and personal ethical values same as in games like Clash of Clans, which was even recommended for ethical education by Jochen Koubek 26. The members of a guild are encouraged to work towards the shared goal, although they are still free to violate the community rules if they wish so. This ethically meaningful level of gameplay exists on a different plane than the farming aspect of the game or its card battles. However, access into a decent guild is still earned through laborious play and financial investments.
Free-to-play games reproduce class societies. But, at least, they are frank about it. In console gaming, you become a High Value Gamer when you (or your parents) purchase a gaming console. This means that you will constantly feed the industry with your (or your parents’) money from now on. Free-to-play games just move this step of conversion further down the funnel, and they allow less wealthy players to get something for free, or even to work their way into the middle tier by grinding, waiting and watching ads. The top tier is always for high paying customers, though, - same as in console gaming.
In my opinion, the labour theory of value works so well in virtual worlds because its usual critique is somehow neutralized by the uniquely immaterial conditions of a massively multiplayer online game. I have already mentioned my personal preference for monsters from the glam rock collection. One may argue that the price that I am ready to pay for such a monster is derived from my consumer preferences, not from the amount of time I would need to grind for it. However, any other monster with comparable skills, but from a different collection, would cost me the exact same amount of grinding time. It is just that I prefer to grind for this particular monster, while another player will grind for a different one with the same selfless dedication. The price of these monsters is still in exact proportion to an already calculated amount of human-hours plus a bit of surplus that is added through watching ads or paying real-life money to the publisher: a Legendary monster is more powerful, and harder to obtain, than a Rare, Uncommon or Epic, and even the latest Mythic monsters have several classes. The work of game designers and artists is to create hierarchies of proportionally powerful and desirable monsters in a number of different , such as Magic the Gathering-like fantasy, weird western or steampunk, .
We may also assume that the production value of a single instance of a digital asset in the inventory of a player is shrinking to zero. Initially, it may be rather high, taken into account the collective work of many artists, designers and programmers, but it decreases with each new player and is minuscule in case of games played by hundreds of thousands, or even millions, as in the heyday of Monster Legends.
As a simplification, in this explanation, I assume that digital in-game goods have no utility value , which adds to compatibility of game economies with the labour theory of value. There must be interesting arguments in favour of the opposite somewhere (Lehdonvirta explores this direction),27 but, apart from providing a catchy illustration to this article, I have made no other use of my digital punks in the real world. Besides, oversaturation of the market of free-to-play mobile casual and social games allows us to cross out marginal utility: there are more available games on the market than I could ever have the time to play, and their publishers are spending a lot of money competing for my attention in those same rewarded ads that I watch to upgrade my game.
In the end, despite all the evils of free-to-play, many dedicated players are very good at reclaiming their agency by consciously playing against the developers. Making a purchase in a free-to play game equals losing money and/or losing the game to many of them, and they get inventive to surpass the limitations, for example, by creating additional fake accounts, joining groups for mutual help on Facebook or simply adjusting the clock on their mobile. Koubek observed children structuring their time and planning game sessions ahead to avoid impossible fees in Clash of Clans,28 which is, in fact, an honourable skill in (and also, very much in the vein of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism29). To a new player, Monster Legends will offer much more grinding and waiting than the actual gameplay. But so is building a career in a gig economy of the modern society, with even less predictable results.
Is capitalism exploitative by design? Does it necessarily exploit the worker? The answer to this question . For now, I will state, once again, that its familiar logic of profit accumulation definitely amplifies inequalities between players of a certain free massively multiplayer game on a global scale. As this is just a game - and a rather well-made one, as compared to many others, – it does not make anyone’s life miserable (personally, for me it was the opposite). It is rather balanced, so players of almost equal strength (and wealth) can battle against each other or unite in guilds for collective action. There would be less inequality in the game if it was available on paid subscription, like World of Warcraft, but this would also make it inaccessible to a large part of its player base, and, eventually, made it the game for a very specific lower middle-class strata or a particular subculture.
One future direction for discussion is how to design a truly non-exploitative game. Will players enjoy it? Will developers benefit from it? In his review of alternative Marxian conceptualizations of exploitation, David Gordon suggests the following definition of a non-exploitative economy: “Other things being equal, it is suggested, a just economic system is one in which people are free to make any economic arrangements they wish, so long as they do not coerce others” 30. Free-to-play games seem to fit this definition, and yet, they regularly make their players feel like they have been used. As we are speaking about game experience, which is supposed to be fun, we can safely assume that something sinister is going on beyond this seemingly neutral economic arrangement. There is an invisible force that pushes players towards paying without asking for their direct consent, and the question is whether, according to Gordon’s own reference to Herbert Marcuse, this force should be classified as an initially unfair condition. More specifically, we should ask ourselves whether the promise of freedom of choice in free-to-play games is “a particular kind of propaganda peculiar to capitalism”,31 and I would argue that it absolutely is, at least, in this very particular case. There is hidden inequality even in those virtual worlds that seem to be accessible to everyone.
Bateman, Chris. The Virtuous Cyborg. London, United Kingdom: Eyewear Publishing, 2018.
Facebook IQ. “Better Together: How High Value Gamers Find Community on Facebook,” May 27, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/business/news/insights/better-together-how-high-value-gamers-find-community-on-facebook.
Castronova, Edward. Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Clark, Oscar. Games As A Service: How Free to Play Design Can Make Better Games. Pap/Psc edition. New York ; London: Focal Press, 2014.
DashNet: Cookie Clicker (Web). France, 2013. https://orteil.dashnet.org/cookieclicker/.
Facebook IQ. “Is Value Optimization a Game Worth Playing?,” July 6, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/business/news/insights/is-value-optimization-a-game-worth-playing.
Facebook IQ. “With Video Ads, Rewards Go Both Ways,” January 10, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/business/news/insights/with-video-ads-rewards-go-both-ways.
Gordon, David. Resurrecting Marx: Analytical Marxists on Exploitation, Freedom and Justice. Routledge, 1990.
Hyper Hippo Production. AdVenture Capitalist. Canada, 2014.
Koubek, Jochen. “Geschichten, die das Spielen schreibt. Werteerziehung mit Clash of Clans.” Paidia - Zeitschrift für Computerspielforschung, December 21, 2015. https://www.paidia.de/geschichten-die-das-spielen-schreibt-werteerziehung-mit-clash-of-clans/.
Lehdonvirta, Vili. “Online Spaces Have Material Culture: Goodbye to Digital Post-Materialism and Hello to Virtual Consumption.” Media, Culture & Society 32, no. 5 (September 2010): 883–89. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443710378559.
McNeill, Edward. “Exploitative Game Design: Beyond the F2P Debate.” Gamasutra (blog), August 9, 2013. http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/EdwardMcNeill/20130809/197958/Exploitative_Game_Design_Beyond_the_F2P_Debate.php.
Nieborg, David B. “Crushing Candy: The Free-to-Play Game in Its Connective Commodity Form.” Social Media + Society 1, no. 2 (July 1, 2015). https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305115621932.
Roemer, John E. “Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14, no. 1 (1985): 30–65.
Screpanti, Ernesto. Labour and Value: Rethinking Marx’s Theory of Exploitation. Open Book Publishers, 2019.
Serada, Alesja. “Free-to-Play Games Between Good and Evil: The Case of Rewarded Video Ads.” Kraków, 2017.
Seufert, Eric Benjamin. Freemium Economics. Leveraging Analytics and User Segmentation to Drive Revenue. Morgan Kaufmann, 2014.
Shokrizade, Rami. (2013, June 26). The Top F2P Monetization Tricks. Gamasutra. https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130626/194933/
Socialpoint. Monster Legends (Android, iOS). Spain, 2014.
- Oscar Clark, Games As A Service: How Free to Play Design Can Make Better Games, (New York ; London: Focal Press, 2014), 6.
- Eric Benjamin Seufert. Freemium Economics. Leveragin Analytics and User Segmentation to Drive Revenue, (Morgan Kaufmann, 2014).
- David Nieborg. Crushing Candy: The Free-to-Play Game in Its Connective Commodity Form. (Social Media + Society 1, no. 2).
- Unless we assume that the workforce is indeed homogenous and does not recognize societal and geographic limitations of the physical world, which would be a very Marxian thing to believe.
- See the official comment from King in Rami Shokrizade. The Top F2P Monetization Tricks. (Gamasutra); also see Seufert.
- Clark, Games As A Service, 266.
- Edward McNeill, “Exploitative Game Design: Beyond the F2P Debate,” Gamasutra (blog), August 9, 2013, http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/EdwardMcNeill/20130809/197958/Exploitative_Game_Design_Beyond_the_F2P_Debate.php.
- Chris Bateman, The Virtuous Cyborg (London, United Kingdom: Eyewear Publishing, 2018).
- Alesja Serada, “Free-to-Play Games Between Good and Evil: The Case of Rewarded Video Ads” (The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, Kraków, 2017).
- Clark, Games As A Service.
- Clark, 3.
- Clark, 6.
- “With Video Ads, Rewards Go Both Ways,” Facebook IQ (blog), January 10, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/business/news/insights/with-video-ads-rewards-go-both-ways.
- McNeill, “Exploitative Game Design.”
- David Gordon, Resurrecting Marx: Analytical Marxists on Exploitation, Freedom and Justice (Routledge, 1990); John E. Roemer, “Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation?,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14, no. 1 (1985): 30–65; Ernesto Screpanti, Labour and Value: Rethinking Marx’s Theory of Exploitation (Open Book Publishers, 2019).
- Ernesto. Screpanti. Labour and Value: Rethinking Marx’s Theory of Exploitation. (Open Book Publishers, 2019).
- DashNet: Cookie Clicker (Web). France, 2013. https://orteil.dashnet.org/cookieclicker/
- Hyper Hippo Production. AdVenture Capitalist. Canada, 2014.
- Socialpoint. Monster Legends (Android, iOS). Spain, 2014.
- A ‘hard currency’ is an in-game currency that can only be obtained in exchange for the real world money.
- Screpanti, 49–50.
- Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
- On the critique of ‘crunch culture’ in the game industry see Jamie Woodcock, Marx at the Arcade: Consoles, Controllers, and Class Struggle. (Haymarket Books, 2019).
- “Better Together: How High Value Gamers Find Community on Facebook,” Facebook IQ (blog), May 27, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/business/news/insights/better-together-how-high-value-gamers-find-community-on-facebook.
- “Is Value Optimization a Game Worth Playing?,” Facebook IQ (blog), July 6, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/business/news/insights/is-value-optimization-a-game-worth-playing.
- Jochen Koubek, “Geschichten, die das Spielen schreibt. Werteerziehung mit Clash of Clans.,” Paidia - Zeitschrift für Computerspielforschung, December 21, 2015, https://www.paidia.de/geschichten-die-das-spielen-schreibt-werteerziehung-mit-clash-of-clans/.
- Vili Lehdonvirta, “Online Spaces Have Material Culture: Goodbye to Digital Post-Materialism and Hello to Virtual Consumption,” Media, Culture & Society 32, no. 5 (September 2010): 883–89, https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443710378559.
- Koubek, “Geschichten, die das Spielen schreibt. Werteerziehung mit Clash of Clans.”
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge, 2013.
- Gordon, Resurrecting Marx.
- Gordon, 40.