I highlight my concerns relating to the usage of purchasable and ‘loot box’ related character skins in the gaming industry. I also unpack a grim not-so-distant future relating to the danger of character skins in the online gaming industry.
What do I mean by character skins?
Undoubtedly you are familiar with entering a retail store and purchasing clothes and accessories to look more fashionable or upgrade your wardrobe. Character skins in the gaming world are similar, except they are purchased for digital characters or avatars. This might be hard to imagine for somebody reading this who is not a gamer, so take a look at the example below.
When you choose an outfit or skin for your character in a game, it is visible to you and other players in the game. There are often hundreds of different skins or outfits to choose from in popular PC or console games. This allows for a high degree of personalization and allows users to express their individuality by customizing their character in the game. For example, you could play as the fisherman on the far left, if you think it is cool. In many games, these skins do not affect the way the game works.
Character skins are a key element of most free to play games.
Free-to-play games usually have character skins. This is because character skins are a highly profitable method to monetize a free-to-play game. According to some sources, the market for skins is worth a whopping $40 billion a year! The top-selling game for 2020, only made $1.91 billion in comparison (see this article for revenue of the top-selling games in 2020).
You can get skins in free to play games in a number of ways:
- Part of the game: random skins are included when the game is downloaded.
- In-game achievements and loot boxes: A user who achieves a milestone in the game is rewarded with in-game currency to buy skins, loot boxes, or both. Loot boxes contain a random selection of accessories and skins, Usually, more rare skins or accessories have a lower chance of being given to a user in the loot box. The chance of a loot box providing a rare item can increase depending on how much is paid for the loot box.
- Battle pass: A user pays a monthly or seasonal subscription for a free-to-play game and in return, they get skins and other cosmetics.
- Real money: A user exchanges real-world money for the currency of the game and purchases skins and other accessories directly using this currency.
It is hard to ignore skins while playing a free-to-play game.
Anyone who plays a free-to-play game can simply ignore skins and can play a game for free right? What a win. Gamers can have fun with their friends without the upfront cost of the game. Well, I don’t think it is that simple. I believe that video game developers have made it difficult to ignore skins because its in their interest to do so. After all, it is the main source of their revenue. This belief makes it unsurprising that 83% of U.S gamers are aware of cosmetics in games (see this research). This has translated into consumers spending money on skins. 39% of U.S gamers aged 13-45 have paid for games using real money. Further, 42% have acquired skins using a battle pass which is an indirect way of acquiring skins using real money.
Even if a gamer or consumer doesn’t pay for skins, the temptation is always present. To entice consumers continuously skins are part of an in-game reward system. Earning skins as a reward for achievement in a game makes a consumer view skins as something positive or worth acquiring. In fact, these in-game achievements may alter behavior, by design. By leaning on incentive theories in psychology gaming companies may be trying to get consumers to play the game more or purchase skins for a quicker reward.
We should be concerned about the danger of character skins on vulnerable adolescents
It is well-known that adolescents face pressure to buy certain brands of fashion to fit into social circles. 17% of teenagers aged 12-18 were bullied directly because of their clothes and 47% about their appearance (see this survey). The common outcome for those who experience bullying was: social exclusion, verbal bullying, and rumors.
Clothes and appearance are determined by how your character looks in a free-to-play gaming environment. The character is you and an extension of your own personality and likes. The consumption of skins is informed by both the identity of the purchaser and socialization (see this study). This means that adolescents want character skins to express their own identities. Gender role stereotyping in games, and the underrepresentation of female characters only add to the danger of character skins (study). Further still, when female characters are frequently overly sexualized when they appear in video games, adding to this danger.
Paying for skins can also create a clear economic divide between those who can and cannot afford to purchase more elaborate and pricey skins. This is concerning and unethical video game developers could use this social pressure to cash-in, on skin hungry gamers who must purchase skins to fit into their peer group, or face exclusion and ridicule.
A problem that will get worse.
An article by Polygon mentions the danger of character skins in relation to the popular free-to-play game, Fortnite. According to the article, skins have already led to social problems. This includes cyberbullying for players who have not purchased ‘cool’ looking skins. This problem is likely to become worse as gaming becomes increasingly mainstream, and a common way to socialize.
36 percent of children aged 13 to 18 years old in the US already play video games on a daily basis. The free-to-play game Fortnite has already reached player numbers of over 350 million in 2020. As these numbers grow, and so will the unaddressed problems associated with skins and bullying.
Offering an adolescent a chance to win a desirable skin through slot machine-like mechanics, makes the whole situation worse. Sometimes this chance to win is free, but it can also be purchased in the form of ‘loot boxes’. This exposes teenagers to gambling early on and can be extremely compelling and destructive to vulnerable teenagers. These teenagers are driven by a desire to fit in by getting the latest skins. Some sources already view these mechanisms as predatory in nature (see this article).
We need more discussion, regulation, and research around the impact of character skins.
The not-so-distant future of skins on free-to-play games is concerning. At the date of writing this article, research in the area of skins and their impact on adolescents and adults is almost non-existent. Articles are also scarce that discuss how parents should deal with address bullying relating to skins in games. This needs to change.
I also believe regulators need to start intervening to limit the exposure of children to gambling like mechanics. Children should not be exposed to gambling like mechanics if they are under the age of 18 (much like actual gambling). I worry that this will have severely negative downstream effects when gambling overexposed children become adults with credit cards.
I hope this article sparks a great discussion in your workplace, school, or social environment. The more we discuss, debate and inform others on the dangers, or benefits of the booming gaming world, the better for everyone.
Please share this article if you found it interesting.
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Matthew Hendricks is a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Cape Town, currently focusing on Blockchain technologies and their intersection with marketing. Matt loves writing about tech. and how it might impact the world we live in.