Last week I published my article Mastering F2P: The Titanic Effect, which proposed that interactive media could be used to put a consumer into an altered state of consciousness that could then be used to make them more vulnerable to spending money than they would in a “normal” state of mind. I also made this case before the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network summit in Panama the week before that. As with all of my articles, the comments are where rigorous debate occurs and my ideas often become more refined.
Two of the people that commented seemed to have a common theme, both proposed in very intelligent fashion, using very different words. One, a parent, felt that because she had very strict control over her children, due to her excellent parenting skills, that others should be just as good at parenting as she is. The other, a very promising scientist, eloquently argued that consumers should be responsible for their actions, especially if the knowledge they need for decision making is available, even if it is not explicitly presented.
The problem with both of these arguments, and the reason I am taking the extraordinary step of writing my rebuttal as a stand alone article, is that they lack compassion. Not necessarily lack of compassion as a characteristic, but the kind of lack of compassion I often see in Quants and highly intelligent people that is born of a lack of knowledge of how the human body and brain works. I want these people as allies so instead of arguing with them I am going to make my case here and hope we can come to agreement.
In 1989 when I was doing neuroendocrine research under Dr. Anna Taylor at UCLA, our research involved inducing fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in rats by exposing them to alcohol in vivo. We then did a number of tests to assess their response to stress, culminating in a water treading test that timed how long the rats would tread water before drowning. All rats died during this test, and I no longer do animal research and am a strict ethical vegan. We then extracted certain cells and marked their cell membrane catecholamine receptors with a radioactive marker so that I could measure them. This was a long tedious process but the results were that the FAS rats had about four times as many of these receptors on their cell membranes as normal rats.
Catecholamines are your “fight or flight” chemicals, adrenaline being one of them. They are released during periods of threat or stress to make you more alert. Too much can make your heart race and make you tire quickly. When exposed to stress the FAS rats overreacted and in the case of the water treading experiment they always died early. They were experiencing the same external stress and had the same serum catecholamine levels, but their body overreacted to these chemicals.
An example of how this might translate to humans is where you have people in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles (the office in the USA where you register your vehicle and get your drivers license). The lines are usually very long. Waiting in a long line is a stressor, but most people can handle it even if it is very uncomfortable. Someone with FAS probably would have a very difficult time in this situation and might be that one person that starts getting agitated and verbally complains about the wait. Sometimes they have to be ejected from the building.
These people have the same stress as everyone else, but they overreact to it for biological reasons. It is easy for the rest of us to lack compassion and just describe the person as immature, undisciplined, or weak. After all, we seem to make it through the line just fine. What we don't know, or perhaps do not consider, is that this person has a disability that is almost certainly underestimated statistically because it is nearly impossible to measure without very specific laboratory methods.
I am not saying I know what is going on biologically with every person in the world. What I am trying to communicate is that I do not know what is going on with every person's biology, but that I know there are biological variations that make some people more vulnerable to some stimuli or situations than others. To dismiss those that are not as good at handling some situations as I am as weak is showing a lack of understanding and Compassion.
If instead of the treadmill test I subject humans to a wait test like is used in Clash of Clans where they can wait a long time for a building upgrade to finish, or they can hit a colorful button and instantly get past the wait, some people are biologically bad at waiting. When I see statistics in games that show such mechanisms have 1 or 2% conversion rates, and hear game developers privately laugh that our industry survives on the backs of these “weak” people, I understand that some of these people are biologically “weak”. This category typically includes children since the part of their brain that is most relied upon during such decision making situations, the pre-frontal cortex, is the last part of the brain to mature (typically around age 25).
Now you can see that it is not a small slice of our population that is potentially biologically vulnerable to some of the techniques we use in F2P. When we lack compassion it is easy to laugh at those we see as mentally weaker or less disciplined than us. We know we are not supposed to laugh at physically disabled people, but often have no reservations about laughing at those we perceive as less intelligent. These people may be disabled too, it is just less obvious. In the case of those that have FAS or are children, how can you blame these people for their condition? Do you really want to say it is okay to prey on these people?
Sure they may only make up 1 or 2% of the population of our games, and we can get them to spend so much money that the other 98% of us get to play for free while laughing at the people that actually fund our game play. But I am asking you here today to stop, think, consider, and maybe even find it in your heart to feel some compassion when the time comes to decide how to make, sell, and possibly even regulate your games.
I'm not sure where to draw the line in protecting children and other “weak” members of society, but when I see a game like Marvel Superhero Squad Online (Marvel is a Disney franchise) that says “We recognize a special obligation to protect young children in our games” on the home page, I'm led to believe this is a product that I can trust to be on the right side of that line. When I see the tutorial training our children to use what looks like a roulette wheel that gives common and premium currency, and promotes their subscription, it makes me uncomfortable to think what we are teaching our children.