EXCLUSIVE: Ten ways analytics can protect players from addiction

With Tencent restricting access to its biggest grossing mobile games to protect young players from addiction, should western games companies be doing more? And if so, could analytics be the answer?

Chinese Internet giant Tencent recently made a bold and unprecedented move, which was certain to frustrate its customers and significantly impact its revenue.  It stopped children from playing its most popular mobile games for more that one or two hours per day.

The move was in response to growing pressure from parents and teachers, concerned that children were becoming addicted to ‘Honour of Kings’, Tencent’s multiplayer online battle game which has over 200 million users and is also the top grossing mobile game in the world.

While Tencent has to be commended for taking such significant action, in reality, banning or restricting access isn’t an effective way of tackling addiction gaming behaviour.  This is evident in Real Money Gambling (RMG) sector, where restriction access to problem players doesn’t work as they simply move on to the next operator and continue to gamble.

However, Tencent’s move does shine a light on western games companies and whether they should be doing more to protect their players from addiction, and if so, exactly what?

For any organisation, it is essential that brand trust is maintained, but it can be a real internal tussle when you have a highly successful product, where the choice is between the loss of immediate revenue against possibly longer-term brand value, as the type of social responsibility required to mitigate addictive behaviours often means the curtailment of a segment of your most profitable customers. A tough choice for a CEO being targeted and rewarded for year-on-year growth.

Lessons from real money gambling games 
For once, this is an area that the games sector can take inspiration from the RMG sector, which is moving towards a new way of doing things, away from self-exclusion which puts the onus on the player to deal with the problem.

Speaking earlier this year at ICE, Sarah Harrison, the chief executive of the Gambling Commission, said the Commission’s approach to protecting vulnerable consumers was to create a framework via its Licensing Conditions and Codes of Practice (LCCP), which “puts responsibility firmly with the operators to minimise gambling-related harm.”

Harrison spoke about the signs of progress the Commission had seen to date. She told the audience at the World Regulatory Briefing element of the show at ExCel in London in February: “Operators, both online and land-based, are stepping up their use of data and predictive analytics, and behavioural science to identify patterns of play which might present risk, and applying player protections and interventions which can help consumers stay in control.”

This is a more data-led approach than that which Tencent is using. It relies on anonymous data to facilitate an in-game approach, rather than the collection of demographic data for children or minors, which called fall under the COPPA regulations in the US, and the forthcoming EU GDPR legislation, which requires authorisation from Parents or Guardians to collect data on 13-16 year-olds, varying from state to state.

Major gambling operators, such as William Hill, Skybet and Mr Green have all revealed, in recent weeks, plans to implement predictive algorithms to identify players exhibiting in behavioural characteristics that signify they are at risk of becoming addicted.

In gambling there are clear behaviours, such as burning all credit and taking increasing risks to win back losses. In games, it’s not so easy to identify, and tends to be more game specific, which brings us to our top ten tips for taking a socially responsible approach to games.

1 Predictive analytics
Firstly, you need to know who to help. With only around 2% of the population potentially likely to have a problem, you need to know the metrics or factors that ensure you are targeting the right players. The factors are often game specific, but are likely to include the length of session, number of daily sessions, time of day, and may include a riskier style of play or a less planned approach to IAP purchase, and so having high daily numbers or IAPs sometimes a fast progression rate can also be indicative. In gambling it is possible to benchmark behaviours against previous people who have self-excluded, however, it is more difficult in games.

2 Data mining and data collection
You need to ensure that you are setting the right events in your game that can capture the data required to identify the factors and measure and compare them for each player. Cluster analysis of metrics, plotted against each other to identify and eliminate crossover, and looking at how the metrics change over time, as addictive behaviours tend to be more persistent, whereas behaviours such as churn can vary.

3 Break the habits
Once you know who to target, you need to build progressive actions to encourage positive game engagement.

4 Messaging
Starting with messaging of warnings, during long sessions or when a player returns. Keeping a persistent risk factor score that triggers more insistent approaches.

5 Targeted In-game restrictions
You can eventually go so far as to prevent play or provide very limited play, or even disincentivising return through a reduction in XP or other in-game assets.

6 AB testing
Just like any game mechanic, you need to be sure that your interventions are working and making a difference, so you can test them to ensure they are bringing down the metrics values for targeted players

7 Sign-up options
One of the simplest options is to make recommendations for players’ session length as an opt-out of at sign-up or at the start of each session, or maybe to ask them when they would like to stop, as they are more likely to be more circumspect before they start playing,

8 Campaign exclusion lists
The last thing you want to do is to try to prevent extended play with in-game interventions, and then continue to include these players in other campaigns or out of game interactions like emails and push notifications reminding them to return for a daily bonus.

9 Ad monetization
You can try to break-up or slow down their play using ads. You may also want to target ads, rather than IAP promotions, if multiple payments have already been made in a session. Interstitials can be useful, as can rewarded video.

10 Don’t put the onus on the player
Players are always the last to know that they have a problem, so it is important that were you have a game with an addictive nature and a potentially significant number of players who are playing too much, that you look after them, for the sake of the player, your brand reputation and the wider industry.

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