Have you ever fired up a new game and felt like all it was trying to do was rob you of your hard-earned cash? While video games used to only involve a one-time payment, the intriguing developments and shifts the industry has gone through have changed that.

Microtransactions define any in-game purchases like wearables for characters, weapon upgrades, and game currency — all non-tangible digital goods. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, this business model was pretty much unheard of, with only a few games experimenting with the concept. Today, microtransactions make up 30% of the $200 billion gaming market, infiltrating the first-person shooter, mobile gaming, online multiplayer, online gambling genres, and more.

Although these premium add-ons are optional, are they really just harmless extras, or are they molding our favorite gaming experiences into digital casinos?

Where Did Microtransactions Come From?

Microtransactions didn’t always dominate the industry. In fact, they used to be a laughable offense in some cases. One of the first and most talked about instances of its implementation was in 2006 in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Bethesda, the publisher, started releasing downloadable content, including the infamous set of horse armor for steeds. Although the set sold poorly, it became a sort of lightbulb moment for game developers and creators in some way. While there were plenty of instances of using in-game purchases as a source of revenue before, notably in South Korea, it wasn’t as common in the Western world.

From there, these small optional transactions become implanted in a variety of games on Facebook, popular EA titles, and just about every mobile game available. Still, it was something many gamers ignored, and they would simply move on to the meat of the game. It wasn’t as jarring, nor were ads and banners plastered all over the front page of the game.

Today, games like Fortnite have become synonymous with microtransaction models — and it’s become an inherent part of the game experience. Players buy skins for weapons, vehicles, and characters using in-game currency called V-Bucks — and that’s how Fortnite, as a free-to-play game, makes money. The system is more regulated now, but Epic Games has had controversy surrounding those transactions in the past. There were issues with shady practices to get people to spend, and even worse, inadequate parental controls meant kids were spending amok.

What Are the Parallels Between Microtransactions and Gambling?

The biggest connection between microtransactions and gambling is the parallel of chance. Skins and what-you-see-is-what-you-get items might not have that element, but loot boxes certainly do. Loot boxes can essentially be compared to gambling because what you receive as a result of the purchase is random — just like a spin on a slot machine or betting red or black at a roulette wheel. There’s the thrill of the potential of receiving an expensive or rare item, and that’s why gamers and even young gamers continue to buy them.

Almost all games that employ a microtransaction model don’t require players to purchase anything to play the game itself. In the same vein, gambling permits you to put down as small of a bet as you want and stop whenever you choose to. Both gamblers and gamers who enjoy purchasing this premium content have one thing in common: they’re incentivized or enticed to perform a behavior. Gamers might see the rewards of increased XP boosts or a powerful-looking character, while gamblers hope for the chance of winning big or at least breaking even again.

After all, with so many novel forms of digital transactions and online gambling platforms like ESPN’s new Hollywood Online Casino (more info here), it’s hard to look away. The difference is that people play video games to have fun, and people gamble with the intention of taking a risk — usually responsibly.

The concern surrounds the psychological aspect, where game developers are starting to employ those sleazy practices that early casinos used to do. They might keep players hooked with flashy visuals and encouraging reminders, which is especially concerning for the young and impressionable. When we start to blur the lines and realize that some microtransactions are no different than online gambling, it becomes obvious that game creators need to put in the same regulations as gambling platforms do. That means applying age restrictions or parental controls, more transparent language when it comes to chance-based purchases, and spending limits.

The Impact of Microtransactions on Video Games

The impact of microtransactions goes far beyond just the individual, however. They also change how the entire video game industry is perceived. Questions arise, such as whether game developers are more concerned with making money rather than with the quality and essence of the experience itself. And the gaming community is starting to fight back and boycott games that seem to use in-game transactions in an exploitative way.

If there’s pressure to purchase, players often feel taken advantage of and doubt the company’s intentions. And that’s not to mention the potential of unfair advantages for gamers who do purchase and disadvantages for those who don’t. The consensus seems to be that video games need to focus less on microtransactions and more on love and care for the gameplay.

With quality games, in-game transactions will naturally be made under the players’ own terms — no sneaky tactics or overly promotional strategies necessary. Gamers thrive off of games that are innovative, have striking visuals and emotive storylines, and provide an overall immersive experience. Purchasable extras should be optional nice-to-haves that don’t detract from the heart of the game so the gaming industry can prioritize what keeps them going — player loyalty.