Patently Worrisome In-Game Offers

We all know that advertisements, offers, and sales pitches can be tailored to be more successful, right? Companies pay attention to what offers work better for what audiences, so that if they know you’re a mother in her 40s they may take different approaches to selling you the same product or service than they would if you were a young man going into college. This observation is probably unremarkable to most of you. “Meh,” you say.

But… what if sales pitches and special offers were even MORE targeted? What if they changed based on ever-smaller segmentations of the groups or demographics that you’re a part of? What if you get a particular offer because of where you live? Or what movies you like? Or the way that you’re behaving at the time?

What if every single offer or advertisement was customized to just you? Not a group of people like you, but just you based on who you are, what you’re doing, and even what kind of mental state you’re in at the time you see the offer?  What if the shopping environment specifically tried to PUT you in the state of mind where YOU would be most likely to buy?

Would that cross some line?

What if I told you it may already be happening, or it might happen in the near future? There was a recent article from Computers in Human Interaction called “Unfair Play? Video Games as Exploitative Monetized Services: An Examination of Game Patents From a Consumer Protection Perspective.”1 In it, the authors take a look at some recent patents filed around the world by major video game publishers. They were singularly interested in patents related to consumer interaction and monetization schemes, and after applying a few more filters they were left with 13 such patents from the companies Activision, Kabam, NetEase, and Aftershock.

The King et al. article lists them all out, but these patents go by names like:

  • System and method for driving microtransactions in multiplayer video games
  • Incentivizing users to alter virtual item balances in online games
  • System and method for dynamically adjusting prizes or awards based on a platform

When you think about how big microtransactions and other in-app purchases are, these kinds of patents should at least pique some interest. After all, Activision alone reported over $4 billion in revenue from microtransactions for 2017. 2 It’s not a sideshow.

After reading through these 13 patents, the researchers concluded that one big red flag for them was what they described as in-game purchasing systems that could adjust their play experience based on individual and/or population player data. This means they can collect and make use of data about players to give them individually tailored sales pitches and opportunities to buy things. Pitches that should be particularly effective for a given person at a specific time in the play experience, not just a whole population of people across time. The authors also say they see systems that can tweak gameplay experiences (such as game difficulty) in a way that elicits more in-game purchasing. And systems that nudge things like pricing and timing of offers based on individual player states like what’s going on in the game, player preferences for types of play, or even how much virtual currency players have to their names at the time. Some of the patents would even allow publishers to “rubber band” prices to match individual preferences and ability to pay. 

If you found out that your favorite mobile game or your favorite PC or console game was doing any of this, would it upset you? Would it violate any kind of social contract you thought was in place between you the consumer and game publishers? You don’t have to go far into the archives of this website to find examples of how psychology can be used to nudge player behaviors. One of the very first articles I published in 2009 was about making judgments about continuing to play a game while under emotional arousal. But if it’s the system targeting YOU in particular based on all the data you don’t even know it has on you, does that change things? Does it change things if the game is actively bending its own rules to create conditions where you’re more likely to buy?

Granted, just because companies have these patents doesn’t mean they are doing this. It doesn’t mean that any given game they create or publish does this. It’s just a patent. BUT, that said, what it DOES tell us is that they’ve got someone working there that has thought about how to do this. They’ve thought about it a lot and they think they’ve figured it out enough to file a patent for it.


1. King, D. L., Delfabbro, P. H., Gainsbury, S. M., Dreier, M., Greer, N., & Billieux, J. (2019). Unfair play? Video games as exploitative monetized services: An examination of game patents from a consumer protection perspective. Computers in Human Behavior, 101(July), 131–143.

One thought on “Patently Worrisome In-Game Offers

  1. I am getting equal parts terror and enjoyment from this line of research and the DCMS enquiry.

    I’m pursuing a cyberpsychology masters at the minute and this debate has me captivated. One topic I’m looking at is the concept of engagement vs addiction – and how the use of practices such as data driven behavioural economics in games can affect players’ meaningful choice (i.e. designed addiction).

    The mentioned paper (which I love!) is focused on monetisation, but as they state: “many systems in this review may be adaptable to non-monetary implementations (e.g. behavioural analytics affecting manipulation of in-game reward payout for time investment in the game).”

    Are there design mechanics which we believe are morally and ethically wrong?
    If so, how do we identify these mechanics from the acceptable ones?
    Is it possible to produce a “responsible game designer code of practice” rather than having to reactively decide if every new mechanic (and how it’s implemented) is exploitative?

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.