Recently, I met a friend from school that I hadn't seen for some time. Being the Xbox dude I am, I showed him Xbox Game Pass, Project xCloud game streaming, and a range of other features Xbox has that he was completely unaware of. As kids, we played Xbox games almost non-stop, skipping school to smash each other in Halo and forming blisters on our thumbs playing Street Fighter. Alas, my buddy has three kids of his own now, and his free time to game has certainly waned.
EA has been in the spotlight for predatory game design practices before, and most likely will be again.
Many "gamers" live in a bubble, where we remain a tad ignorant of how the vast majority of consumers engage with Xbox, PlayStation, and other gaming platforms. The average player only grabs a few games per year, and spends a lot of time jumping on and off a staple few, including Minecraft, Call of Duty, Fortnite, and EA's FIFA.
Even the most technologically aware parents generally seem unaware of things like Xbox Game Pass and beyond. Perhaps more problematically, many parents often seem unaware of how modern AAA games revolve around destructive gameplay loops, particularly if they're from EA.
EA has been in the spotlight for predatory game design practices before, and most likely will be again. Star Wars Battlefront II with its pay-to-win lite mechanics was met with a furious backlash from core gamers and shooter fans. However, EA's sports franchises, most notoriously FIFA, effectively have pay-to-win mechanics baked in at a fundamental level in the "FIFA Ultimate Team" (FUT) game mode. FUT combines the most nefarious aspects of addictive game design, pay-to-win, and repeat spending, targeting individuals who may be particularly susceptible to these predatory design conventions. You can argue that adults should be responsible for themselves, but FIFA has a "E for Everyone" ESRB rating. Perhaps the ESRB needs to take another look at these gambling-lite mechanics.
When parental controls aren't enough
The heartbreaking post on Mumsnet from anonymous user "NameChangedCosShame" describes a scenario where her teen son was caught spending £6,000 pounds (around $8,300 dollars) on FIFA on Xbox. I've already seen people respond with "well it's the parent's fault," but honestly, setting up parental controls is fairly complicated and laborious even if you're technologically advanced.
The post describes how her son has been particularly hard-hit by the U.K.'s lengthy pandemic lockdown period. From February to September 2020, and then from December 2020 to April 2021, the majority of UK schools were shut down, with kids pushed onto Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls to do their work. All socializing was canceled and the news feeds bleet 24/7 about how dangerous everything was. It wasn't a fun time for anyone, least of all a kid, which was cited as a reason for his frivolous FIFA spending.
Even if the post is fabricated in some way (and there's no reason to believe it is), there are countless other examples of this occurring across the years. Psychological studies have shown time and time again how gambling addiction can rise hand-in-hand with a decline in mental health. EA knowingly exploits this fact with its games.
You can argue that the parent should've put parental controls on the Xbox, and they do exist to block this scenario from happening. However, this excuses EA and others for intentionally designing a game system around exploitation. If you're a stressed and busy parent who comes from an era where video game consoles didn't have these parental control features you may not even understand why they're necessary. There's frankly not enough education about this stuff, and every time somebody's kid slips through the cracks, we get a scenario like this.
FIFA Ultimate Team is mired in gambling
Many games have loot boxes these days, or at least something like them. In Overwatch, the game rewards you for repeatedly playing the game by giving you a shiny magical present filled with shiny skins and other items, mimicking those nostalgic Christmas hooks from your childhood. Fortnite does something similar, as do many others. I'd argue that FIFA Ultimate Team steps a little further into classical gambling, however, since the cards you get can actually be traded, and have some form of monetary value. FIFA also has the added clout of real-world football licenses, bringing celebrity adoration into the equation. It's a perfect storm for exploitation.
Like real football, players have different value levels and skill. FIFA players who have better players in their team will, potentially, be more proficient in competitive play online. The game is supposed to match you with decks of similar value, but how is there any way to know if you're losing because you don't have that special player you want on your team?
It's not just about the money. It's about the erosion of mental health through predatory game design and marketing.
My friend from school went into some detail about FIFA Ultimate Team since he doesn't have time to jump on World of Warcraft and some of the other games we used to play. Plus, like many kids, his adore football, so it's a way for them to all bond. Even my friend who is well into his thirties lamented the addictive qualities of FUT, joking how he'd acquire new players and expect them to make his teams better, only to end up losing to a more "powerful" team.
He's an adult though. There's an argument to be made that adults should be able to do whatever they wish with their own money. I've betted on horse racing before for a laugh, and you know, if it's fun, fine. The problem is when casual gambling becomes gambling addiction, and thus self-destructive.
EA and platform holders, quite honestly, have a responsibility to ensure the games they're making billions of dollars on shouldn't cause harm to individuals or families. It would be easy to make a FIFA game that was still fun and engaging, yet didn't prey on the psychological vulnerabilities of individuals susceptible to self-destructive addictive behavior. These games would still make millions, and yeah, execs like Activision's Bobby Kotick might have to forfeit a yacht upgrade or two. But allow me to play the world's smallest violin.
Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, and the ESRB need to step up
I'm sorry lads, but "they should've turned on parental controls" isn't enough in this scenario. This keeps happening time and time again. These games and these consoles are being sold to kids, with marketing aimed at kids. Platform holders need to do a better job to educate parents on what these so-called "E for Everyone" ESRB-rated games can actually do to a youngster susceptible to gambling addiction. They also need to work harder to push parental control restrictions onto consoles by default.
The ESRB and governments should consider taking the position that FIFA and other games with gambling-like structures should come with an 18-rating. Sell FIFA Ultimate Team separately with an 18-rating if you want. Casinos often carry 18 plus entry restrictions for this very reason.
I don't buy this argument that "it's the parents fault," and neither should you. It's not just about the money. It's about the erosion of mental health through predatory, manipulative game design and marketing. EA actively pushes and partners with YouTubers with disposeable income, bragging about their card pulls too. EA knows what it's doing, and doesn't seem to give a shit about the potential consequences.
There's always going to be situations where people slip through the cracks, whether they're kids or not. Stop apologizing for billion-dollar corporations that only care about harvesting cash, responsibly or not. Addiction can happen to anyone, at any time, 18+ or not. And I know I'm by no means the first person to highlight this stuff, and hopefully won't be the last. Either way, it's about time that gaming companies took a long look at themselves and asked if they're okay with exploiting susceptible individuals this way.