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When the Pay to Win Button Backfires

How do players react and what social comparisons do they make when others pay real money for in-game advantages?

What do you think of people who pay real money for advantages in multiplayer games? Things like more powerful weapons, higher level avatars, damage boosters, or experience point doublers? Do you curl your lip and look at them down your nose? Do you hate them? Do you hate them SO MUCH?

If so, you're like many of the subjects in research conducted by Ellen Evers, Niels Van de Ven, and Dorus Weeda. The team presents its findings in a new article titled "The Hidden Cost of Microtransactions: Buying In-Game Advantages in Online Games Decreases a Player's Status."

The authors use social comparison theory and research on envy as a starting point for exploring how other players react to people who cough up cash to jam on the "pay to win" buttons. In short, social comparison theory says that in the absence of meaningful data on how well off we are or how well we're doing, we habitually turn to comparisons with other people to form some kind of judgment. Am I hungry or too warm? I can answer those kinds of questions based on internal evaluations. But for questions about whether I make a lot of money or how good I am at Rocket League? I need information about other people to place myself along a continuum. Having to make an upwards social comparison where I come out looking bad relative to someone can make me see myself as inferior. That's unpleasant for me, but hey that's how it is. It seems pretty natural for more powerful or capable players to have higher status. 

But Evers, van de Ven, and Weeda argue that these social comparisons in video games are complicated by in-game purchases that give players advantages. (By the way, we're not talking about purely cosmetic items like hats, skins, paint jobs, and the like. The authors are specifically talking about purchases that confer advantages relative to other players.) When someone buys an advantage, it elevates their well being, which makes me feel worse. And what's more, the psychological effects of envy and perceptions of injustice can enter the picture if I don't feel that they "earned" that advantage fairly. 

This is the kind of potential reaction that the researchers were interested in. Each of the three studies discussed in their paper looked at a different game. One looked at people buying in-game boosters for Maple Story, a free to play, massively multiplayer role-playing game. One looked at the use of the gold versus real money auction houses that were, at the time, part of the action-RPG game Diablo III. And one considered people who paid real money to buy more powerful tanks in World of Tanks (a free to play, massively multiplayer action game) instead of earning them through in-game grinding.

The procedures for each study differed a bit, but the gist is that the researchers recruited players then asked them to imagine other players in their game who bought an item or boost that gave them an in-game advantage. They then asked players a series of questions designed to measure their attitudes towards that person and likely interactions with him. Did they respect the player? Did they envy him? Did they want him on their team? Would they stop to revive him or just walk past like a stone cold motherf'er? By the way, I absolutely love that this study, which appeared in a refereed, scientific journal, contained the survey item "How skilled did you assume the wizard is." I never get to ask this kind of questions in my job.

The primary finding is that players who pay to win are indeed respected less by their fellow players. Players also viewed them as less inherently skilled. Conversely, players said they were more likely to respect others who earned what they had.

Second, players indeed felt some amount of ill will towards those who paid for advantages. They said they would be amused by the other person's failure. They were less likely to say they wanted the person on their team.

But despite all this, one of the more interesting findings was that when confronted with another person who paid for advantages, players reported more temptation to spend real money themselves in order to even the odds. Though perhaps this isn't too surprising given what we know about envy.

This paper is preliminary, relying as it does on self-reported survey data instead of actual player behaviors. But as far as I know it's the first to directly examine people's attitudes towards in-game purchases using an established psychological theory. There's LOTS of ways to expand on the research here. Does envy cause increases in actual spending? Do players drop out of matches more if they get paired with or against those who pay for advantage? Could you do a content analysis of text or voice chat in games with these people to see if players try to lower their social status in response to perceived unfairness? Do those who pay for advantage have fewer people on their friends lists or get fewer friend invites? Do these effects extend outside of the game session itself to social comparisons facilitated by leaderboards, rankings, or achievement trackers?

Here's to hoping for many follow-up studies.

[Jamie Madigan writes about psychology and video games at Consider supporting him on Patreon.]


Evers, E., van de Ven, N., & Weeda, D. (2015). The Hidden Cost of Microtransactions : Buying In-Game Advantages in Online Games Decreases a Player ’ s Status. International Journal of Internet Science, 10(1).

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