Fettering Facebook: Should We Put a Cap on Capitalism?

Meaty arguments break out from time to time on Twitter, but the 140 character limit cramps my long-winded style. Most recently, UK game dev Iain Lobb and US game dev Adam Saltsman were discussing Adam’s article Contrivance and Extortion II: Clarifications, Feedback & Suggestions, in which he condemns certain game design styles as “unethical”. Iain countered by saying “I think we should save the word unethical for things like credit default swaps, MP’s expenses, etc.” (note to my non-UK readers: an “MP” is sort of a gnome-like creature that inhabits England’s Houses of Parliament). Iain continued, “I think to worry ethics over a few dollars amongst people who can afford it is over dramatic.”

But what if players actually can’t afford it? i referred both gentlemen to my article “Do Social Games Exploit the Mentally Ill?“. Iain posited one possible solution, to which Adam agreed:

Level Cap

Seventy years ago, that kind of talk would land you on a Communist Blacklist, and you’d never make games in this town again. (taps cigar)

Joseph McCarthy

Get stuffed, pinkos.

i mention the Twitter thread, because this very topic came up at IndieCade 2011 a few weeks back, during the Ethics of Big Game Design panel. (Okay – admittedly, i brought it up.) Panelist Brenda Brathwaite spent an earlier part of the discussion talking about the disease of alcoholism in her family, and how banning alcohol would remove a lot of the temptation and social pressure surrounding alcoholics, potentially making life easier for them … but added that prohibition is a ridiculous idea, and that it’s not the rest of society’s responsibility to keep alcoholics from drinking.

Drunk baby

NO, Timmy. You have a PROBLEM.

During question period, i asked whether or not game developers (or the government) had a responsibility to protect players by preventing them from paying too much money in their games. i had asked the same question at GDC earlier in the year, and was met with a similar response here: no … that’s crazy … how would you even … what would the cap be … how would you enforce … is it really up to us … etc etc etc.

The discussion inevitably eschews corporate ethics and focuses on government enforcement. Just as the government enforces certain limitations on alcohol and gambling, and even stronger limitations on drugs, the question becomes would/could/should the government impose such a spending cap on games? Bar owners in Canada are required to deny booze to patrons who they feel have had too much. Companies that hold holiday parties are on the hook to provide cab rides to their employees, because if those employees drive drunk and something goes awry, the company could be liable. i’ve been told that in many places, casinos turn away townies. One of the panelists mentioned that, in fact, South Korea does enforce a game curfew on its citizens to help fight game addiction, one of its societal woes.

Uncle Sam

i want YOU … to clean up your room and eat all your veggies.

It’s funny to me that in a discussion about ethics, we turn to what the government mandates, legislates and requires of us. i’m no philosopher, but don’t issues of ethics supersede Earthly rule? i hold that certain things are right and wrong – that certain things benefit and damage my fellow members of society – and i hold those convictions apart from any laws my government may make. (Thankfully, my convictions are largely in harmony with my government’s laws.)

The Evil Get Richer

The suggestion of capping spending in a game no doubt flies in the face of ‘Murrican values of Freedom and Liberty and the Free Market System (a system which, as we’ve seen, has so thoroughly hosed a good many people in that country). But i wonder: do you think it’s a good idea? Have we come to the point that Korea must have reached, where the problem of overspending real money fo virtual goods is so widespread that a limitation is actually necessary? Should we nip it in the bud before the freemium model causes a problem? And do you think companies and game developers should act ethically apart from anything their governments require them to do?

Let me know which country you’re from in your response!

19 thoughts on “Fettering Facebook: Should We Put a Cap on Capitalism?

    1. Florian Garcia

      I don’t see how that would help people being more responsible.
      I would have another approach which would cap the maximum profit per month or fiscal year a company is able to make according to its size and that would correspond to what would be an healthy growth. All the profits beyond the company limit would be shared by all the employees. Some sort of compulsory bonus that would bring a whole new dynamic into doing business.
      On the players side, I like to see things in a more philosophical fashion. The players enjoy an interactive experience, often for free then give the back to the developer this enjoyment time by spending money. Some players give probably too much back. But nothing says that the developer can’t give free gifts to its most spending players. But again, we need to get out of this “everything’s good for always more profit”.

  1. Mushyrulez

    Capitalism naturally has its own balance. For normal people, there’s a set ‘optimum’ money-to-entertainment ratio in which they get maximum ‘profits’. If they put more money into the game, they’ll feel that it’s not as entertaining, and thus not worth the money; if they put less money into the game, they’ll feel that it’s not as entertaining as it could’ve been, and thus worth the extra money. I’m pretty sure this is also what happens in capitalism so that all prices are generally fair.

    However, there are some people whose optimum money-to-entertainment ratio is incredibly high, people who will feel best when they pump in huge amounts of money into the game. Although this seems abnormal and on the verge of addiction to us, to them, it’s still their optimum ratio. Humans naturally try to achieve that optimum ratio, and if they achieve it, it’s worth it to them.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that we don’t know how the addicted people feel. If we did/were, we’d be able to make far better conclusions.

  2. Dano

    There are always going to be stupid people in the world. If you restrict them from one addiction, they’ll just go off on another. What’s the saying? A fool and his money are soon parted.

    1. UnSub

      I can’t find it right now, but I’m pretty sure that the research into problem gambling indicates that this doesn’t happen – a player doesn’t just switch from poker machines to blackjack when poker machines aren’t available. It would probably be similar with online gaming (although some games use interchangeable mechanics, which could impact on this behaviour).

      Addicts aren’t stupid by default, nor are all addictions interchangeable.

      On this topic: the interesting thing around price caps for online gaming is that it would be easy to track – accounts and payments are linked. Sure, a player could have multiple accounts, but they are likely to have connected information (e.g. the same credit card) somewhere. A gaming company could look to that information to work out if someone has become addicted / spending an obscene amount of money, but it’s more than probable that until someone sues, they won’t.

      Much like casinos who keep very tight track of how much money someone – especially a high roller – is putting into their business, but baulk at the idea they should be responsible for knowing where that money comes from. This is especially an issue when fraud is involved (and this is a great story that looks at the impact of that fraud on others: http://www.theage.com.au/national/highstakes-gamblers-and-the-luck-delusion-20090606-bz8h.html?page=-1).

      Problem gamblers are the best customers of casinos. Problem gamers will be the best customers of social games. I expect to see some interesting (and very, very sad) stories emerging in the next few years that reveal this.

      1. Ryan Henson Creighton

        It’s not sad already? One guy in China murdered another guy over a virtual sword. A guy in Korea died playing Starcraft for fifty hours. A woman in the US let her 3-year-old die of starvation and thirst because she was busy playing World of Warcraft.

        Please let me know when you think it’s getting sad.

        1. UnSub

          I agree, those are sad stories. And the potential is for it to get worse through an increase in scale, particularly as the video gaming industry typically ignores any kind of social criticism of its effects.

  3. Andreas Renberg

    A bit of a side note regarding “Don’t issues of ethics supersede Earthly rule?”

    To me, _all_ laws are (or at least should be) based upon ethics. So a person may ordinarily say “I don’t care if what I’m doing hurts other people. It benefits me and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”

    Laws protect us from harm by such individuals, by making clear what is wrong, and setting up systems for how to prevent the other person from doing this harm. “A great number of people have agreed that this action is unethical, which gives me the right to stop you from or punish you for doing this action.”

    Sadly, the law is a tad slow, so it may take years to create and put into effect a new law. So just because something isn’t illegal _yet_, doesn’t make it alright to do. If something is immoral, it should be illegal, even if the legal system isn’t “caught up” yet and declared something as “officially immoral”.

    Of course, you could also open the can of worms of “is it’s alright to do something unethical if the total benefit is better than the harm done?” But anyone who believes that “me earning more money makes up for my taking advantage of people’s psychological flaws” is definitely a criminal.

    (and for the record, I’m half Swedish, half American, and have lived in both countries, following both sets of laws. But as both legal systems are essentially the same, at least for people in “day to day” life, I don’t believe it makes a difference)

    1. Andreas Renberg

      Sorry, I didn’t realize the “quick side note” would turn into a long rant.

      Short answer: “Yes, corporations _should_ act ethically.” But of course, the corporations who don’t will have a much easier time earning money. The honest businessman rarely becomes the billionaire.

  4. Mitchell

    I had a huge ranty post but it looks like Adams original post was really well written and actually addresses it. There is a huge difference between tension free design and predatory design. (I really like that term.) My big issue is that people are using the problems of predatory design to condemn social games, or more specifically, Games They Personally Don’t Like And Thus Shouldn’T Be Made By Anybody Because They Know What’s Best For The Industry Don’tcha Know.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Yeah – that’s what i ranted about at GDC during the Coins Debacle. i imagine the discourse would be different if “cool” games adopted this monetization model first, before “mom” games did. It would become more difficult for people to criticize the model if it supported games they loved to play. Easy to dismiss something like Farmville because it doesn’t interest them.

  5. Sean Bawden

    Ryan et al.,

    I don’t think we should confuse the issues of “how much a corporation can make” with “how much a person can spend on that entity’s wares” – those two issues seem to be separate. The answer to the former should be “as much as it ethically can,” while the answer to the latter should be “only as much as to do no harm.”

    Setting a limit on doing no harm is difficult from a legal standpoint. Should it be a function of one’s net income? Perhaps – but how to but that into place as a law?

    I have no issues with corporations or people or anything making a lot of money. I am sure we’d all like to make more… unless Sally Struthers has been lying to me all these years.

    The issue is thus more complex than it would appear.

    I don’t know the answer, and while I agree somewhat in principle, what do you think about the argument brewing in the states about disallowing people from using food stamps to buy pop, or as they say south of the 49th “soda.”

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Re: food stamps – in Canada, we don’t charge tax on certain essential food items where the total purchase is below x dollars. i don’t think pop qualifies North of the 49th.

      And as to the rest, i submit that when American banks tried to give mortgage loans to people who couldn’t afford them, it nearly brought the country to its knees. Still might. You’re right that it could be difficult deciding where the line in the sand should be drawn, but just because it’s difficult, nuanced and maybe even arbitrary, does that mean the line shouldn’t be drawn at all? The legal age of sexual consent here is 18. That’s a difficult, nuanced and arbitrary line to have drawn. Should we not have drawn it?

      My point is that law draws those lines all the time.

      1. Sean Bawden

        Actually, the legal age for consent to sex was 14! Unless one of the people was in a position of respect or authority, or there was sodomy. I believe it’s been raised, but I see your point. Bad touch, bad touch!

        It’s an interesting argument about a restraint on my ability to spend my own money. We don’t prohibit buying things that are potentially bad for us – we tax the living hell out of them! Maybe the solution is not to limit the amount the corporation can make, but rather give the government the opportunity to tax the living piss out of them. Win-win? I need a drink.

  6. Oliver Witham-Kozma

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Im from the UK and in Business we were taught about this rather interesting conflict in ethics between what businesses are legally required to do and what they could be doing. The thing is that because businesses affect our lives so much, they have to be mindful of their actions whether the government tells them to or not. A game i used to play frequently called Habbo Hotel really showed me the potential problems of this kind of game, where you can socialise in real-time with other users in an isometric environment and create rooms and creations to share with others. The main problem is that it costs about £1 for some small item in-game, and sometimes £2.50 or even more. This means that you have to spend about £50 or more to create rooms in the game that you and other users could actually use or play games with, which is unbelievably excessive. I’ve heard many stories where kids use other peoples phones or phone demo units in stores to get credits for the game, or people spending £50 or more in one week! I mean sure, it’s targeted at a younger age group and some don’t know any better anyway, but it still a considerable problem.

    Sulake, the company behind the game, could EASILY charge less for their items to keep users happier and enjoy the game in a more balanced way, but for many years this has been the case and it has in fact been getting worse. I don’t believe in a cap, as people should have freedom and choice in what they do, but they shouldn’t be expecting their audience to pay as much for the items they provide, as it not only makes the game less enjoyable for people who enjoy the actual concept of the game, such as myself, but it also potentially exploits vulnerable people, and it’s an already more vulnerable market segment.

    With my 6 years experience of the game I could say a considerable amount for it, but this economy has actually severely damaged the games community and economy, and they have had to make large cutbacks because of it. By considering pricing and content more considerately and in a balanced way, you’re potentially making your customers happier that will develop a better and larger community, and in turn even more revenue for your game. The business model Sulake employs is not only selfish, but it makes little business sense. Usually by choosing more ethical options you can aid your business, so it shouldn’t even be an additional consideration for a profit-driven business!

    Anyway, rant over, they should be more considerate because it helps everyone including themselves.

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