Microtransactions, the enemy of game-based learning

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Video games have the potential to be a learning tool, but they can also trigger bad habits.

Photo: Bigstock.

Game-based learning is one of the most relevant educational trends currently. It consists of the use of games as a mean for teaching or instruction. It’s more thoroughly described as the learning attained through games in an educational context designed by teachers, who generally use games that already exist with established mechanics which they adapt to the purpose of education.

Indeed, video games are not created for the primary purpose of teaching, but we can’t deny the great potential they have to train skills that can be useful in everyday life and for employability.

According to a study conducted in Scotland, games like Borderlands help develop quick thinking, coordination, communication, and teamwork; while games like Portal train skills like observation, critical thinking, and creativity.

“Games are always keeping you on your toes. You have to be able to figure out what to do if you're just dropped into a situation.”

For Matthey Barr, author of the study, decision making and creation of solutions are the two most valuable learnings someone can obtain from a shooter or a puzzle game.

The capacity of games as an educational or training tool is so high that universities around the world have already started investing in eSports varsity teams the same way they do with football or basketball; turning video games learning strategy, and a resource to secure a degree or a professional career.

Nonetheless, this educational potential is being put at risk by some business practices within the game industry; one of the biggest culprits are microtransactions.

From a learning exercise to a purchase habit: The pay to win model

Since the launch of the first Atari console 47 years ago, the primary objectives of video games have been to provide challenges and fun times. Learning comes when you overcome those challenges with the use of skills like logical thinking or teamwork. The whole process makes the path to learning more amicable and easy to traverse.

Every paying product requires capital to go into production. The money from investors who inject funding into developer companies as well as the money from the consumer who buys the game after its release is needed to keep pumping the machine into the production of new games.

Video games business model has changed a lot since 1972 and has integrated other practices, some of them boost the profit of developer companies at the expense of the video games’ primary objectives; to provide fun and challenges from which learning can be obtained.

This is when the pay to win model springs into action. This game dynamic enables microtransactions that allow players resources to make the game easier or to have advantages over other players skipping the process in which they would have to play the game train different kinds of abilities and earn the rewards that the game has to offer to “level up”.

From getting outfits that grant special abilities to getting the upper hand against an opponent in Mortal Kombat 11; these transactions open a shortcut that sacrifices the in-game time necessary to obtain certain skills that make the challenge worth it and that can also be applied in real life.

In some cases, users do not even have control over the advantages they will obtain through their investment. The massive introduction of loot boxes and dynamics based on chance has turned some video games into forced bets instead of learning opportunities.

In 2017, the developer company Electronic Arts fueled worldwide controversy with their aggressive in-game loot box strategy. Their Star Wars Game, Battlefront II, hit the stores with a full price range (59-69 dollars approximately); but to have access to all the content they advertised, the player required to put in either 45 thousand hours of gameplay or pay 2100 dollars.

Forty-five thousand hours of gameplay is not a challenge, even half of that is a one-way ticket for video game addiction. A number that would be impossible to meet unless the player would give every waking hour of gaming for years, if anyone would have to pass this many hours of work we would be calling this an abusive and illegal work practice.

Either that choice or to pay 2100 dollars in a game for which the user has already paid full price is not only unethical, it also eliminates any teaching potential that the game might have.

In real life, physical places in which this kind of activity is done are called casinos. They are regulated by law and they don’t allow minors. But some video game companies found a way to appeal to the youth market, by including the loot box mechanic. Hawaiian state legislator Chris Lee refers to Battlefront 2 and games with similar practices as virtual casinos, designed to lure kids into spending money.

It is hard to argue the point when we see revenues produced by models like pay to win and loot box mechanics. Juniper Research, an investigation company based in England, reported numbers as high as 25.3 billion in 2017, and it is estimated that it will rise to 32.2 billion in 2022.

Countries like the United States, England, and France, where some of the biggest developer companies are located, have already started a strategy to stop gambling simulation in video games. What can we do as teachers to ensure video games remain a fun past time with educational potential?

A lot of educators rely on the educational potential of video games, the recommendation to those who use video games in their programs of game-based learning, would be to continue to manage a careful selection of games, more oriented to develop the possibility of learning rather than enable money spending.

Another course of action that can help is having open conversations with the students about what in any given game is a good practice and what is not, what can lead them to learn and what can trigger bad habits or even addiction.

As in most sources of information and entertainment, there are always risks of finding potentially harmful content, but the traditional answer of restriction won’t work if we use it as the only solution. It is also imperative to build a strategy that also includes analysis, dialogue, and the intention to enable good decision making, so students can learn from any content (books, documents, videos) consciously and critically that allows them to develop abilities instead of harmful habits.