Video games are a symbiotic relationship between software and art. As a unique modern entertainment medium, games combine the technological capabilities inherent to software functionality with the human and emotional expression witnessed in art. If it’s a high-caliber title, the resulting experience is an interactive story where performance, narrative, graphics, writing, and level design become greater than the sum of its numerous parts, a true cohesion of mechanics and artistry gifting the medium with grand potential.
Of course, the industry’s corporate branch is derailing the medium’s creative merits. Modern games often promote functionality at the expense of artistic achievement. The more expendable content is regularly carved out and locked behind a paywall, and the most common type of locked content is cosmetic customization options. In video games, “cosmetic” refers to the visual identity of our in-game avatars. Costumes, equipment aesthetic, and color shades — basically anything corporate deems inessential to gameplay — are all free game for microtransactions, justified by the industry-wide catchphrase: “It’s just cosmetic.”
This is a very profitable lie. In reality, “It’s just cosmetic,” is just bullshit. Gameplay and character customization are even more complementary than Mountain Dew and Doritos. In a great game like Halo: Reach, experience points are gifted at a generous rate and can be earned in story mode, competitive multiplayer, and Firefight, the game’s horde mode. Leveling up unlocks new gear for your Spartan and boosts your profile rank. As a result, Halo: Reach’s XP system rewards us for having fun playing the game and encourages us to keep ramming Hunters with our Warthogs.
Halo: Reach proves that cosmetic items without the threat of microtransactions can have a demonstrably positive effect on gameplay. On the flip side, games like the online hero FPS Overwatch demonstrate that publishers are aware of this. After all, if cosmetic items weren’t valuable and integral aspects of a modern video game experience, publishers wouldn’t sell them to us. Yet despite this truth, cosmetic microtransactions littering upcoming titles like Borderlands 3 and Gears 5 were a forgone conclusion. Of course they’d be in there! Premium online stores in $60 games are as predictable as death and taxes.
So, how did we get here? How do Activision, Electronic Arts, Ubisioft, 2K, and Warner Brothers peddle their nonsense and get away scot free?
The answer? We’ve been Bioshocked: manipulated and mentally conditioned by publishers to accept the normalcy of their greedy schemes. Only instead of “Would you kindly?”, we are expected to acquiesce our free will and critical thinking capacity to the tune of industry buzz words like “recurrent user spending,” “live services,” and of course, “It’s just cosmetic.”
The game industry has been like this for decades because we keep allowing them to make a clean getaway. Video game publishers treat consumers like we’re Frogger sitting in a kiddie pool filled with boiling water. In terms of applying unethical business practices, Electronic Arts, Activision, and other nefarious publishing culprits slowly twist the dial, fueling the fire underneath our oblivious sweaty asses.
If introduced 15 years ago, players would’ve balked at recent aggressive monetization practices like cosmetic microtransactions. But when administered at a snail’s pace over the course of a decade, predatory income models functioning as baby’s first online casino are standard operating procedure. According to a 2018 Qutee report, 69 percent of the gaming public believe cosmetic microtransactions are acceptable.
The game industry normalizing scams that defraud its customers is nothing new. Season passes, frivolous horse armor DLC, and restrictive DRM were once viewed as controversial new business practices. Now, they are seen as business as usual. Publishers blunt valid criticisms of aggressive monetization by normalizing unacceptable content carving through repeated use, and if that doesn’t work, publishers will rebrand, repackage, and resell unpopular money-making schemes with more palatable phrasing intended to hoodwink customers.
Loot boxes are the most recent ethical battlegrounds. In the last few years, modern single player and multiplayer titles alike are often created from the ground up to exploit us via video game slot machine that nets the player with random goodies in exchange for cash. The practice is incredibly lucrative for companies but currently very unpopular among players, meaning that publishers must avoid stepping over the ethical red line in the sand.
As witnessed with Star Wars Battlefront II and Shadow of War, games designed with pay-to-win mechanics, or games designed as overly long grind-athons meant to add value to a game’s unregulated online Canto Bight-style casino, are currently deemed unacceptable by the video game populace as a whole. In other words — if the mystery box affects gameplay, no dice.
This, of course, brings us back to cosmetic microtransactions. Even though costumes and visual rewards have tangible gameplay benefits, the industry performed a tactical sleight of hand by labeling these items as “cosmetic.” As a word, “cosmetic” is loaded with negative connotations. “Cosmetic” is an adjective meant to devalue the noun it’s describing. It’s synonymous with descriptors like “unnecessary,” “superfluous,” and “inessential.”
Make up, lipstick, and eyeliner are described as cosmetic items despite being able to boost self-confidence when applied by men, women, and folks outside the gender binary. Necessary surgical procedures and medical treatments for transgender people are regularly dismissed as being cosmetic. “Cosmetic” video game items are similarly degraded as superfluous despite all evidence to the contrary.
The nature of “It’s just cosmetic,” needs to be destroyed. However, changing public perception of cosmetic microtransactions will be much easier said than done. With EA attempting to rebrand loot boxes with a friendlier term like “surprise mechanics” (because only depressed jaded losers hate surprises!), the industry’s obsession with exploiting consumers for every penny between the couch cushion they’re worth will continue.
Making matters worse: It’s probably too late for the industry to revert back to reasonably normal business practices without the market crashing. With cosmetic microtransactions and loot boxes alone, publishers have sunk vampiric teeth into consumers with addictive tendencies. As video game pundit, amateur wrestler, and renowned Mysterio stan Jim Sterling pointed out in a recent YouTube video, people with vices like gambling and drugs are being preyed upon. Cosmetic microtransactions sell, and many people can’t stop buying.
Leveling up by accruing XP has long been described as an “addictive” gameplay mechanic, yet in recent years, this addiction’s nature has changed. The addiction was the fun we had playing games, but for many, that fun has transitioned into the thrill of a monetary transaction where customers — especially those with health issues ensuring fiscal restraint is a near impossibility under such capitalistic psychological conditioning — trade hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars into a virtual slot machine. When vulnerable people spend rent money they can’t afford, “It’s just cosmetic,” isn’t just cosmetic.