At the height of the controversy surrounding microtransactions in Star Wars Battlefront II, a Reddit user who goes by the name Kensgold posted an open letter to publisher EA and other developers in the video game industry. “I am 19 and addicted to gambling,” he wrote. Kensgold wasn’t talking about roulette tables or online poker. He was talking about spending over £10,000 on in-game purchases over the last several years.
Kensgold, who asked that we not use his real name, shared with Kotaku his bank statements and receipts proving that he had indeed spent $13500.25 (£10,005.79) in games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Smite, and The Hobbit: Kindoms of Middle-earth over the past three years. His post was a plea to the people who design and sell games to take note of the effect microtransactions in games can have on the small population of people who are especially susceptible to them. He includes himself in this group, and while he’s legally an adult now, he says the lure of spending money for rewards in his favourite games started when he was only 13. The first was a browser city-building game Kensgold remembers being similar to Clash of Clans. “I think I spent around $30 [£22] on it but I was also very young and had actually no income whatsoever,” he said during a phone interview.
A year later, he had moved on to the now defunct The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth. Released in 2013, the smartphone game was notorious for its repetitive grind and pay-to-win microtransactions. In it, players built up a city by harvesting resources, buying armies, and earning upgrades to make their units better. Players could progress faster by paying money, which was incentivised by the game’s competitive aspect. Players could launch attacks on one another’s cities, making the power of their defences and armies a matter not just of pride but survival. In order to protect their own resources from getting looted by other players, buying Mithril, Kingdoms of Middle-earth’s in-game currency, was a must. It’s part of what got the game trashed by reviewers (back when people were still reviewing pay-to-win mobile games).
Kensgold guesses that the players at the top of Kingdoms of Middle-earth’s leaderboard spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to stay there, even sending Google Play cards to other players in their guilds to help boost the strength of their overall teams. As a result of these “whales,” the gaming industry’s term for individual players who contribute a disproportionate amount of a game’s microtransaction revenue, other players who wanted the chance to be competitive would have to spend as much as they could as often as possible. In Kensgold’s case, this meant hundreds of dollars a month. In the summer of 2015, he’d spent around $800 (£596) in Kingdoms of Middle-earth purchases. Over the course of that entire year, thanks to that and other microtransaction-heavy games like Clash of Kings and Age of Warring Empire, he spent $4,116 (£3,069).
“It never feels like you’re making a good decision when you spend that hundred dollars,” he said. “But at the time I was like, ‘What else am I going to spend it on?’ There weren’t really any repercussions to enforce like, ‘Yo, idiot, stop.’”
At the time, Kensgold was in high school with no car and a part-time job in a cafe. Of the $300-400 (£224-298) paycheque he received every two weeks, he reckons he spent about 90% of it on in-app purchases. His grandparents started to worry and his mum tried to shut off their internet to stop him from playing, but with a smartphone and a 3G connection, circumventing those obstacles was easy. He even got a second job to fuel his addiction.
Kingdoms of Middle-earth is one of a number of mobile games built around in-app purchases.
A list of Kensgold’s bank transactions for the last three years shows just over $10,000 (£7,546) in debit payments to places including Steam, Google Play, and Blizzard.
What ultimately threw Kensgold off Kingdoms of Middle-earth wasn’t a dramatic intervention by friends or family. The game’s developer, Kabam, sold it off to a Chinese company in January of 2016. That company proceeded to make changes to the game that drove fans to abandon it en masse, according to Kensgold. With most of his in-game friends gone, he had no more incentive to keep buying upgrades and competing.
Instead, his high school friends started to get into PC gaming. Kensgold saved up to buy a better computer and by the following year he had moved from spending money on smartphone games to spending it on microtranasctions in games like Smite and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which let you pay real money on cosmetic items for characters.
At the height of his interest in Smite, Kensgold said he owned over 300 of the game’s character skins. But those skins were purely cosmetic—they had no effect on gameplay. After spending all that money just to stay competitive in Kingdoms of Middle-earth, why did he still feel the drive to spend money on games he could otherwise enjoy for nearly free?
“I think it stems from the fact that I had set a precedent in those mobile games that a hundred dollars isn’t all that much,” Kensgold said. “It’s not a really big deal if I see that skin and I really want it, because it looks awesome. And if I just drop 100 bucks I’m pretty much guaranteed to get that kind of thing.” He’d see a friend playing a character in a costume that he didn’t have and immediately feel the urge to spend the $10, $20, or $50 (£7.46, £15, or £37 respectively) it cost to get it. It was all too familiar by that point to give him pause.
“When you’re about to click the button going ‘Do you agree to spend $100?', you don’t really get the feeling of that low kind of gut punch that I get now.”
“It’s not like buying a stick of gum at the store”
Kensgold doesn’t play Smite or Counter-Strike Go anymore. After finally talking with his therapist about his spending habits earlier this year, Kensgold made a decision to stop gambling with CS:GO skins and liquidate his collection, put the remaining money back in his bank account, and begin moving down a different path—one in which he tried to keep microtransactions and in-game purchases at arm’s length.
“I had to get up the nerve to ask for help,” Kensgold said. “To get a therapist to lay it out for me, like ‘This is what you’re doing, this is how you can help yourself, here are the tools to help you.’”
That was enough to help him turn things around. “You don’t really expect it to help as much as it does,” he said. The original post on Reddit was his way of trying to share that realisation with other people. The debate around loot boxes and microtransactions has a tendency to focus on the feud between faceless corporations and nameless masses of fans, as it did in the case of Battlefront II. For Kensgold, though, the issue is much more personal, and has to do with the population of people like him—whales—for whom microtransactions can become addictive.
Kensgold has spent thousands on buying and gambling CS:GO skins.
“The majority of the reason that I made my post was not really to slam EA or any of the companies that do this, but to share my story and to show that these transactions are not as innocent as they really appear to be,” Kensgold said. “They can lead you down a path. It’s not like buying a stick of gum at the store.”
For that reason, Kensgold sometimes has to tell friends he can’t play a certain game with them, like Black Desert: Online for instance. As the backlash against in-game purchases has grown, it’s become easier to explain his aversion to these games to people. “But for a while it was difficult to tell your friends that you can’t play with them just because of the way the game is implemented,” he said.
Despite all of the money he’s spent, and all of the long hours he worked to earn it in the first place, Kensgold hasn’t been able to quit in-game purchases completely. He’s played PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds since the beta, but having collected most of the game’s loot crate items before the developers began selling them for real money, he’s managed not to fall into that game’s trap. In the end, it’s really just about being aware of his vulnerability and doing his best not to ever let it get that bad again.
It’s also about making sure that other fans and potential whales are kept aware. If more people realise how destructive microtransactions can be, Kensgold thinks that’ll help prevent others from dropping stacks of cash on digital power-ups and cosmetics. “It’s not just a one time purchase. It never is.”