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Video Game Microtransactions: Necessary Evil or Price Gouging Plot?

This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s summer editorial intern PJ Cunningham. Find him on Instagram at @peachycunningham. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at thezillennialzine@gmail.com.

There’s no gut punch quite as bad as the microtransaction.

One second, you’re having the time of your life playing an exciting and affordable, or perhaps even free, video game and the next, you’re reaching for your credit card and wondering where it all went wrong.

Okay, maybe that is a bit extreme. However, microtransactions in video games are always a growing financial irritant and stressor for gamers everywhere. Microtransactions, as explained by entertainment reporter Brian Lloyd, are essentially any purchases made in a video game or app that are not included in the original listed price, or lack thereof, for said digital product.

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In other words, rather than simply just buying a $30 game for example, a video game with microtransactions may sell as a $15 game that also includes certain necessary enhancing features, modifications, or even simple cosmetic pieces available for purchase. One high-profile example of this are character skins in fortnite.

As a now ubiquitous part of the global gaming industry and its profits, there’s no denying that they’re here to stay. However, the jury is still out on whether these video game microtransactions are bad or not. With different opinions and numbers on both sides, it’s time to put down the controllers and tackle this conundrum together.

Smaller Prices, Big Headaches and even Bigger Profits

While microtransactions are not uniform in pricing or design, they all follow a similar simple concept. Essentially, video games of old were sold with the games’ contents being either already present and playable from the get-go or unlockable through gameplay. However, in games with microtransactions, there are likely add-ons, extra levels, or even simple character/avatar enhancements available for purchase using currency.

However, currency in this case can and often does mean two different things. Some microtransactions are simply direct purchases that can be made inside of a game with real money, while other games, such as the NBA 2k franchise, instead have their own virtual currencies, that can be both earned through achievements in the game or bought using actual money. While this might sound simple, there is an inherent complexity that accompanies games with fictional currencies.

Research from experts in both finance and psychology suggest that people, particularly children and young people raised in the digital age, are more likely to spend money that exists in the abstract. In other words, money that we cannot see, feel, or easily physically deposit or withdraw is perceived as less painful to part with, and is therefore easier to spend.

This is especially true for in-game virtual currencies, such as Fortnite’s “V-Bucks,” which, though purchasable through real dollars, have their own fictional values corresponding with fictional products such as character skins or weapons. With arbitrary fictional values for fictional products and an easily accessible virtual payment system, it is no surprise that spending can quickly get out of hand.

Stories about kids spending thousands of dollars on microtransactions in games like Fortnite are less surprising in light of the aforementioned financial psychology, especially when one considers that this spending is the backbone of a nearly $100 billion dollar industry. With microtransaction sales across gaming mediums now accounting for about 88% of all digital gaming spending, it is no surprise that video game developers are continuing to embrace the microtransaction model.

More Affordable, Less Enjoyable?


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While it is clear they prey on our psychological pitfalls and consequently are highly profitable, it is less clear if that represents an objective positive or negative answer to the question ‘are microtransactions bad?’

Afterall, other products, such as advertisements, manipulate human psychology, but cannot necessarily be classified as negatives.

There are some potential positives that accompany the presence of video game microtransactions. First off, games such as Fortnite and Candy Crush are essentially free at face-value, since companies incur the profit-generating microtransactions inside of the gameplay structure itself.

Therefore, young children or those on a budget, at least hypothetically, could enjoy the games without having to break open the pocket book. However, even this potential positive includes its fair share of drawbacks.

Firstly, while games can sometimes be enjoyed without buying any microtransactions, many fans feel that the increased prevalence of microtransactions make many of the creative elements unique to video games and their settings or storylines inaccessible or more difficult to enjoy. This sentiment is explored in a 2021 NPR article by Keller Gordon, which mainly focuses on the case of “Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla,” a single player anthology piece that takes place in Medieval Scandinavia. In this game, both cosmetic purchases, in the form of historically accurate character outfits, and gameplay enhancers, like armor sets, are only obtainable through financial microtransactions. Many diehard fans found that while this did not make the game much more difficult, it took significant joy away from them.

Keller also highlights a growing microtransaction trend that does even more damage to overall player enjoyment, the ‘hack’ microtransaction. This type of microtransaction allows players that are able and willing to spend the big bucks advantages in gameplay, making them likely to beat other gamers in competitive play.

While there are many numerous examples of this, Keller highlights “Star Wars: Battlefront II,” as a particularly controversial one. In this game, players could buy extra ‘virtual currency,’ with real money, which then increased their likelihood of unlocking extra-powerful ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ characters such as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader among others.

Not only did this make gameplay uneven, but gave wealthier and more hardcore players a significant advantage over those who could not or would not pay extra.

As a NBA2k player myself, I understand the pain of microtransaction fueled competitive disadvantages firsthand. While both friends and opponents paid real cash to upgrade their MyPlayers, I chose not to. As a result, I struggled to win games against them and others, even though my actual skill level was similar enough to suggest I should have, at the very least, squeaked a lucky victory or two through.

While by no means a tragedy nor a deterrent from my continued playing of the game, it nonetheless tampered my enjoyment of the game series, especially when one considers that, unlike certain other video games and apps, NBA2k games are far from free.

Most alarmingly however, though, is evidence that kids who did not buy microtransactions in video games such as Fortnite could be exposed to bullying, as they would be perceived as less skilled in the game, or perhaps considered poor.

When real life becomes less enjoyable because of a gaming company’s profit motives, no one is having fun.


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So, are microtransactions bad? Well, if it is not abundantly clear, my position on them is pretty clear.

Yes, they are both potentially predatory and liable to put a dent in enjoyment. I personally cannot say I am a fan of microtransactions in video games after researching their potential drawbacks. However, this is not meant to simply be an op-ed, but rather a slightly biased exploration. Therefore, here are some caveats that you should consider before you pass your own judgment.

Firstly, as Calvin Coffee of UC Davis’s campus newspaper The Aggie pointed out in a 2019 article, video games are more advanced than ever and therefore, require higher overhead costs to make and distribute.

Therefore, developers were left with the tough decision of whether or not to raise retail prices or make up the difference using largely optional microtransactions. They chose the latter, which may well allow gamers to be able to afford to still buy games, microtransactions or not, in the first place. 

Furthermore, it must be noted that not all microtransactions are created equal. As Karim Ahmad notes in a 2022 article for tech publication Make Use Of, certain microtransactions in video games are worse than others, such as paying to finish the storyline of games, which both I and Ahmad feel reeks of profit-driven fun-policing and is far less easy to justify than say, making players pay a few extra dollars to make the inconsequential choice to change their characters skin or outfit. While that is, of course, a valid form of self-expression, generally, it does not hamper enjoyment and gameplay as much as the microtransactions in games like “Star Wars: Battlefront II.”

I will readily admit there is a limited rationale for the continued growth of microtransactions. That being said, I urge gamers to take back the power.

While microtransactions might be here to stay, at least for the time being, we do not have to play purely by their rules

Gamers should aim to put their money toward games that seek to minimize microtransactions, or at the very least, contain purchases that do not directly inhibit enjoyment for those who cannot afford them.

At the end of the day, this is more important than gaming. If minimizing microtransactions in video games can help keep gamers user-friendly and even potentially minimize youth bullying, then I am proud to be anti-microtransaction.

So, are microtransactions bad? Where do you stand in this debate? Let us know below!

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