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CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Microtransactions in Video Games
Over the span of a few decades, the gaming industry has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry titan. This growth can be attributed to the increasing growth of internet speeds that allow for players to connect seamlessly to multiplayer games. As broadband speeds have improved and next-gen consoles have become equipped with better hardware to take advantage of such speeds, downloading new content during video game play onto PCs and video game consoles have become increasingly common. These are often referred to as “microtransactions,” or “anything you pay extra for in a video game outside of the initial purchase” (Makuch, 2017). These extra payments within the game may grant players cosmetic items to equip their character with, new maps to play on, or in one of the most controversial cases, game-altering boosts for players when playing online with others.
As microtransactions began to seep into mainstream video games, developers and publishers immediately saw a new opportunity to generate more revenue from an untapped player base that wasn’t done throwing money into the game. New forms of microtransactions started to take shape in later years in the form of DLC (Downloadable Content) packages, in-game season passes to new content, and “loot boxes” or “loot crates.” The latter in particular has sparked increasing controversy after its implementation in games such as Star Wars Battlefront II in 2017. The developers of Battlefront II assured the fan base that all future content for the game would be free for everyone; they didn’t mention, however, that the game would include a loot crate system that could heavily influence the gameplay when playing online against other players. Players who choose not to spend additional money in the game to buy loot crates may find themselves putting in hours upon hours into the game in hopes that they can “level up” various aspects of their character to equal the accomplishments and abilities of other players. Some worry that others who choose to spend additional money in-game on loot crates are “quite literally pay[ing] money for statistical advantages” (Alexandra, 2017).
As a result, the game faced mass criticism and backlash claiming that the game at its very core was driven by an exploitive system that made the game “pay-to-win.” As one gamer said on behalf of the community: “We don’t like missing out, we want things we paid for to be complete, we especially don’t like to think that someone with more cash/naivety could skip the hard work we put in” (Meer, 2017). Essentially, players are concerned with ethical issues of fairness and equality. As many view video games as a way to unwind and escape the pressures of the real world, worries over whether one’s playing skill can ever equal those with more expendable income may start affecting gamers’ “real” lives. Furthermore, the controversy of loot crates became more complex for another reason: “When you buy one, you don’t know what you’ll get. Sometimes you get something good. Sometimes it’s bad,” which means that some players end up spending large sums of money in the hopes of receiving something good without receiving proportionate pay-off (Takahashi, 2017). Hawaiian State Representative Chris Lee even addressed this issue of uncertain payoff in a Reddit post stating, “these kinds of loot boxes and microtransactions are explicitly designed to prey upon and exploit human psychology in the same way casino games are so designed” (Lee, 2017). The association between microtransactions and the troublesome addiction that could come from gambling in a competitive environment only adds fuel to the fire in the debate for loot crates and microtransactions in general.
Proponents for microtransactions claim that some good can come out from these types of systems placed within video games. For example, some DLCs that are released during a game’s life cycle may be available at no cost to players because it is subsidized by microtransactions. Such surprise purchases is claimed by some defenders as a feature that “has kept the active community interested, and with more players than ever it keeps things interesting for new and old players alike” (Daniel, 2017). Furthermore, it could also be argued that by including game-altering items in for-purchase loot crates, players that simply do not have enough time to play are able to catch up and be on a level playing field with players that have seemingly endless time to devote to the game. This not only gives them a fighting chance against other gamers when playing online, allowing for the enjoyable experience they bought the game for in the first place, but it is also useful for teams – if one member has less time for progression-based rewards, all they need to go is make a quick purchase and they don’t have to worry about dragging the whole team of gamers down.
Developers who place loot box systems within their games have pointed out that they do not require players to purchase microtransactions. For example, loot boxes that can be purchased with real cash can also be acquired by playing the game for extended periods of time. The methods that players could use to unlock or gain loot boxes vary by game, with some requiring earning a set amount of in-game currency to unlock a loot box and others giving out loot boxes as a random reward for completing multiplayer matches or certain challenges. Overall, these developers insinuate that there is no real controversy at all since it is a matter of individual players’ free choice of how to go about acquiring game advantages. Furthermore, the inclusion of loot crates is legitimated by basic economic principles: if there was no demand and no one was buying them, they wouldn’t bother supplying them in their game design.
Many video games today have a microtransaction system in place to take advantage of an additional revenue stream. Future game releases will surely continue this trend of enticing players to make additional purchases in pursuit of the thrills and accomplishment they seek in gameplay. Can game designers find a way to incentivize players to make meaningful in-game purchases without compromising the ethical values of fairness in competitive games?
- What are the purposes of multiplayer online video games? What ethical values underwrite multiplayer game play?
- What are the central values in conflict when it comes to the controversy over incorporate microtransactions, especially loot crates, into multiplayer online video games?
- Do you think the responsibility for resolving the microtransaction controversy lies with game developers or game players? What kind of solutions would you suggest for either side?
- Alternatively, is this a dilemma that can be solved in the private sphere or is there a point in which the government should regulate the gaming industry, perhaps like it might regulate gambling? What might this look like?
Alexandra, H. (2017, November 11). “Star Wars Battlefront II Lets You Pay Real Money For Multiplayer Advantages.” Available at: https://kotaku.com/star-wars-battlefront-ii-lets-you-pay-real-money-for-mu-1820333246
Daniel. (2017, November 1). “In Defense of Micro-transactions and Loot Boxes.” Available at: https://breech.co/games/defense-micro-transactions-loot-boxes/
Lee, C. (2017) “R/gaming – The State of Hawaii announces action to address predatory practices at Electronic Arts and other companies.” Available at: https://www.reddit.com/r/gaming/comments/7elin7/the_state_of_hawaii_announces_action_to_address/dq62w5m/
Makuch, E. (2017, November 14). “Microtransactions, Explained: Here’s What You Need To Know.” Available at: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/microtransactions-explained-heres-what-you-need-to/1100-6456995/
Meer, Alec. (2017, November 15). “How Loot Crates and Unlocks Really Work in Star Wars Battlefront 2.” Available at: https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2017/11/15/star-wars-battlefront-2-loot-crates-explained/
Takahashi, Dean. (2017, December 22). “The DeanBeat: The Tragedy of the Star Wars: Battlefront II Loot Crates.” Available at: https://venturebeat.com/2017/11/17/the-deanbeat-the-tragedy-of-the-star-wars-battlefront-ii-loot-crates/
Williams, M. (2017, October 11). “The Harsh History Of Gaming Microtransactions: From Horse Armor to Loot Boxes.” Available at: https://www.usgamer.net/articles/the-history-of-gaming-microtransactions-from-horse-armor-to-loot-boxes
William Cuellar, Kat Williams, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
May 18, 2020
This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.
The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:
Cloak of Invisibility:
Perceived Privacy and the Ethical Study of Digital Fan Culture
Dr. Suzanne Scott
Assistant Professor of Radio-Television-Film
University of Texas at Austin
March 26 (Tuesday) ¦ 3:30-4:30PM ¦ CMA 5.136
What ethical challenges arise when scholars research the passionate fan communities that surround popular films, games, or books? Because many academics studying fan culture self-identify as fans and also participate in the fan communities they study, there has long been an unspoken “fans first” policy governing approaches to ethics in the field. But what happens when we ethically feel we owe our research subjects more protections than those required by our Internal Review Boards (IRB), and if so, what motivates this and would these protections meaningfully look like? This presentation will contextualize ongoing ethical debates around whether fan discourse and forms of textual production (like fanfiction or fanart) should be conceptually approached as “texts” or “people.” Through a survey of these histories and core ethical debates, we will explore several interrelated issues ranging from the perceived privacy of fan communities to the ethical best practices of researching industry/fan interactions through contemporary case studies.
Dr. Suzanne Scott is an assistant professor in the Department of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research and teaching interests include fan studies, media convergence, digital and participatory culture, social media, transmedia storytelling, comic book culture, and gender studies. Dr. Scott’s current book project, Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry (NYU Press, April 2019), considers the gendered tensions underpinning the media industry’s embrace of fans as demographic tastemakers, professionals, and promotional partners within convergence culture.
The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are free and open to the public.
The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:
Media Freedom and the Middle East: Pursuing a Self-Regulatory Approach in Qatar
Associate Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin
February 19 (Tuesday) ¦ 3:30-4:30PM ¦ BMC 5.208
Laws throughout the Middle East and North Africa dramatically limit freedom of expression by prohibiting journalists from engaging in basic newsgathering functions, including taking video and photos in public. Historically, journalists and the general public alike have faced potential criminal punishment for violation of these laws, which also often prohibit the publication of information deemed offensive, embarrassing or sensitive. Recently, however, Qatar has begun to explore ways to promote media freedom and Western investment in media through the initiation of the Qatar Media Hub. Organizations operating through the QMH would ascribe to a code of professional ethics as a means of regulation, potentially taking them outside the scope of traditional criminal law. During a recent consulting trip to the country, I urged government leaders to adopt this self-regulatory approach in lieu of traditional government regulation as a means of advancing free expression. My current work explores the benefits of ethical self-regulation as well as global approaches to media self-regulation in the hope of drafting a workable model for Qatar’s new initiative.
Dr. Amy Kristin Sanders is an award-winning former journalist, licensed attorney and associate professor. Before joining the faculty of The University of Texas at Austin, she taught for more than four years at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Qatar. Her research focuses on the intersection of law and new technology as it relates to media freedom. Specifically, she focuses on international and comparative media law and policy issues, including media freedom, Internet governance, social media and digital literacy. She has authored more than 20 scholarly articles in numerous law reviews and mass communication journals, and she is a co-author of the widely recognized casebook “First Amendment and the Fourth Estate: The Law of Mass Media.”
The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.
CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Internet Memes
Most people could never predict that they would become a viral internet sensation overnight. Canadian teenager Ghyslain Raza never thought about this possibility of digital fame until one day he found that a video he created of himself fighting imaginary enemies with a golf-ball retriever had been uploaded on Kazaa, a collective file-sharing network. According to BBC, classmates discovered this video on a school computer and shared it, reaching around 900 million views. It was labeled as the most viral video in 2006 (Tunison, 2017). The “Star Wars Kid” video continued to be shared, sometimes remixed and edited with funny music and visual effects. Ghyslain Raza had unintentionally become a meme.
There are many internet personalities who would relish in the digital limelight that Raza inadvertently stepped into, but he did not. The sudden popularity of his video caused a severe psychological effect on Raza. He immediately faced aggressive bullying at school. “In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me,” he shared in an interview with L’Actualite. “People made fun of my physical appearance and my weight. I was labeled the ‘Star Wars Kid’… [they] were telling me to commit suicide.” Raza eventually dropped out of school before spending time in a psychiatric institution for severe depression. His parents sued the classmates who uploaded the video without permission, which led to further bullying after some in the media claimed that the family was “greedy” (Zimmerman, 2013). Raza eventually overcame the negative repercussions of his unwanted celebrity. He went on to obtain a law degree from McGill University and has been a public supporter for victims of cyberbullying.
Raza’s experience with becoming a meme sparked debate over the ethical concerns of meme creation and sharing, especially when they use images or videos that depict identifiable individuals. Many memes originate from video or pictures being “repurposed” for the goals of the meme creator, including political commentary, satire, and “lulz.” Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner, co-authors of The Ambivalent Internet, emphasize that memes are never “just” memes: “The problem is that the ‘just’ framing (just joking, just a meme on the internet, just a new kind of hazing ritual) posits what we describe… as a fetishized gaze, one that obscures everything but the joke itself” (Phillips & Milner, 2017). They argue that regardless of the medium, real people are almost always affected by a meme, whether directly (as in Raza’s case) or indirectly (in the case of a general racist meme).
However, it is the age of the Internet, and who knows how all the videos or images that we post or comment on will be taken by others. Screenshots and online archives simply continue the permanence and ability of others to comment on this content, often in ways we can’t anticipate. The consequences of being immortalized in a popular meme are difficult to predict, given the ever-evolving use of the meme. Sometimes, these unintended uses of images, videos, or other content seems to be a boon to the unsuspecting person depicted in the meme. Kyle Craven, better known as the subject of the “Bad Luck Brian” meme, has made “between $15,000 and $20,000 in [three years] between licensing deals and T-shirts” (Garsd, 2015). “Overly Attached Girlfriend,” a.k.a. Laina Morris, used her meme fame to launch her comedic acting career. Memes can even be considered a part of modern language, signaling a way of communicating among a technological in-group using digital discourse. Above all, memes strive to be clever, creative, and humorous in their appropriation of content and images that most likely where not intended to be comedic in that specific way.
As with many internet phenomena, meme creation often foregrounds a conflict between the freedom of expression of creative meme makes and the privacy concerns of those that may find themselves featured in the meme. How much control should we have over our images and videos, and at what cost to the creativity of the digital world?
- What are the ethical issues with taking a picture or video and making it into a humorous meme?
- What concerns about consent are implicated in making image-based memes? Are these concerns with consent present in our other commentary or use of public images?
- Does the intention of the meme maker matter? Does it matter if they do not know (or care) about the subject depicted in the image or video content that the meme is based upon?
- What ethical guidelines would you propose for those creating image-based memes? How might these avoid harmful consequences or ethical transgressions—foreseen or unforeseen?
Garsd, Jasmine. “Internet Memes and ‘The Right To Be Forgotten.’” NPR, March 3, 2015. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/03/03/390463119/internet-memes-and-the-right-to-be-forgotten
Phillips, Whitney and Milner, Ryan. “The Harvard Case Shows a Meme Is Never ‘Just’ A Meme.” Motherboard, June 6, 2017. Available at: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/zmen4y/the-harvard-case-shows-a-meme-is-never-just-a-meme
Phillips, Whitney and Milner, Ryan. “The Complex Ethics of Online Memes.” The Ethics Centre, October 26, 2016. Available at: http://www.ethics.org.au/on-ethics/blog/october-2016/the-complex-ethics-of-online-memes
Tunison, Mike. “The incredibly sad saga of Star Wars Kid.” The Daily Dot, August 6, 2017. Available at: https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/star-wars-kid-meme/
Weisblott, Marc. “‘Star Wars Kid’ goes on media blitz 10 years later.” Canada.com, May 9, 2013. Available at: https://o.canada.com/entertainment/celebrity/star-wars-kid-goes-on-a-media-blitz-10-years-later
Zimmerman, Neetzan. “‘Star Wars Kid’ Breaks Silence, Says Online Fame Made Him Suicidal.” Gawker, May 10, 2013. Available at: https://gawker.com/star-wars-kid-breaks-silence-says-online-fame-made-h-499800192
Alex Purcell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 14, 2018
Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.
CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Powerful Images in the Immigration Debate
Sharon Lauricella, Ph.D., University of Ontario Institute of Technology
In June 2018, discourse around immigration to the U.S. came to a peak when award-winning Getty Images photographer John Moore captured an image of a distraught, crying, two-year-old Honduran child beside her mother and a U.S. border agent. The image of the toddler, with her shoelaces removed and mouth agape in a wail, came to represent Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants; thousands of children, parents, and family members were separated at the U.S. border as a form of punishment for attempting to cross illegally.
The photo galvanized the public to contact both Republican and Democratic representatives with their objections, and also inspired people to donate to legal defense services for refugees. The emotional photograph had such a significant public impact that shortly after its publication, Trump issued an unusual retreat and ended the hardline policy of separating families.
Just over a week after the photo was taken, and subsequent to its viral spread, Time magazine’s cover of June 21, 2018 featured a photo illustration of the child, without her mother or the border agent, opposite an image of a menacing Trump staring down at her. The caption read, “Welcome to America.”
When Moore took the photo, it was unknown whether the mother, Sandra Sanchez, and her daughter, Yanela, would be separated during the immigration process. Subsequent to the publication of the original photo, it was discovered that the child and her mother were detained without being separated. Carlos Ruiz, the border patrol agent whose legs are in the original photo, told CBS news that upon Sanchez’s illegal crossing, he detained her and her daughter for a formal search, which took “less than two minutes.” Ruiz reported that as soon as the brief search was completed, Sanchez picked up her daughter, who immediately stopped crying.
The Trump administration harshly criticized Time, accusing it of running “fake news” given that the child in the photo illustration and her mother were not separated at the time that the photograph was taken, nor were they separated afterward. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called for Time to apologize to Trump, and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted that Democrats and the media were guilty of exploiting the little girl to “push their agenda” to revise Trump’s hardline approach to immigration. Trump also weighed in, tweeting that the Democrats have no intentions of resolving this “decades old problem,” and that “we can pass great legislation [on immigration] after the Red Wave,” referring to the then upcoming elections in November 2018. Other news media outlets argued that printing the photo was a blunder on the part of Time, and that the intended effect of the image “oversold” the problem of families detained and separated at the border.
Time issued a correction which made clear that the child was not taken away from her mother by border agents. However, Time defended its decision to run the cover’s photo illustration, indicating that the image of the distraught child is representative of the thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents and of whom there are not any photographs. Time’s editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, issued a statement arguing that the photo captured the terror of what was indeed happening at the border and in detainee centers:
The June 12 photograph of the 2-year-old Honduran girl became the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate in America for a reason: Under the policy enforced by the administration, prior to its reversal this week, those who crossed the border illegally were criminally prosecuted, which in turn resulted in the separation of children and parents. Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment.
Felsenthal and those supporting publication of the cover argue that the image of the toddler on its cover was representative of immigration-related political discourse, and that the photo illustration conveyed contemporary treatment of undocumented immigrants. Alongside government-issued photographs of children in cage-like pens in detainee centers, the photo on the cover of Time served as a poignant representation of the difficulties experienced by undocumented immigrants.
Moore is an experienced photojournalist and had covered immigration issues previously. He expressed that he captured a raw and honest image that did much to publicize the terror experienced by many undocumented immigrants. He said he believes that his job as a photojournalist is to inform and report what is happening, and that when he took the photo, he feared that the child and her mother would be separated in the detainment process. Moore also argues that in his work, “it is important to humanize an issue that is often reported in statistics.” He issued no objections to the use of his photograph as it appeared on the Time cover.
- Moore’s photo served to educate and galvanize the public in relation to immigration issues. Does the fact that the toddler was not separated from her mother matter, given that thousands of other children were?
- Viewers of the Time cover could assume that the toddler was separated from her mother while being detained at the U.S. border. Given that this was not the case, should Time have run the cover with the photo illustration featuring this child?
- What ethical values serve as the basis for photojournalism? What interests are often in conflict in photojournalism?
- What values are in conflict in the use of Moore’s photo? How might you best balance the conflicting interests if you were an editor?
Kirby, J. (2018, June 22). “Time’s crying girl photo controversy, explained.” Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/6/22/17494688/time-magazine-cover-crying-girl-photo-controversy-family-separation
Blake, A. (2018, June 22). “Time magazine’s major mistake on the crying-girl cover.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/06/22/time-magazines-major-screw-up-on-the-crying-girl-cover/
CBS News. (2018, June 22). “Crying girl in iconic image was never separated from mother, ICE says.” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/border-patrol-agent-involved-dramatic-photo-girl-crying-at-border-speaks-out/
Dwyer, C. (2018, June 22). “Crying toddler on widely shared Time cover was not separated from mother.” NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/06/22/622611182/crying-toddler-on-widely-shared-time-cover-was-not-separated-from-mother
Holson, L. M. & Garcia, S. E. (2018, June 22). “She became a face of family separation at the border. But she’s still with her mother.” The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/us/immigration-toddler-trump-media.html
Time Staff. (21 June 2018). “The story behind Time’s Trump ‘Welcome to America’ cover.” Time. Retrieved from: http://time.com/5317522/donald-trump-border-cover/
Schmidt, S. & Phillips, K. (2018, June 22). “The crying Honduran girl on the cover of Time was not separated from her mother.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/06/22/the-crying-honduran-girl-on-the-cover-of-time-was-not-separated-from-her-mother-father-says/
Cases produced in cooperation with the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative, the author, and the University of Texas at Austin. They are produced for educational uses only. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission or cost for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.