Free-to-play games make me feel like Jack Thompson

What do a longtime Mortal Kombat fan and the poster boy for wrong-headed crusades against violent games have in common? Maybe more than they'd like to admit.


Mention Jack Thompson to any longtime gamer and you're likely to get a reflexive scowl in response, or perhaps a hearty roll of the eyes. Thompson was the Florida attorney who launched a crusade against violent video games, calling them "murder simulators" and doing interviews with anyone who would listen in order to enlighten people to the spiritually corrosive cultural waste children were consuming for entertainment.

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When you get right down to it, is this really that much different from Smurf's Village? (Yes, but still…)

Thompson led the charge against Grand Theft Auto, saying the game's creators were "mentally molesting minors for money." After three police officers were killed by a professed Grand Theft Auto: Vice City player in Alabama, Thompson represented their families in a civil lawsuit to hold Take-Two responsible. Later on, he sicced the police on the creators of webcomic Penny Arcade for harassment after they made a charitable donation in his name. You don't hear much about Thompson these days, because he was disbarred in 2008, and his ability to attract headlines apparently went along with his license to practice law.

But recently I found myself reaching an uncomfortable understanding of Thompson's point-of-view, and I had the Smurfs to blame. I was looking over an English version of the slideshow accompanying Capcom's latest financial results, and one factoid from the file stood out to me. The company's mobile gaming business--primarily the Beeline division that made Smurfs' Village for mobile platforms and Facebook--reported an average revenue per paying user (ARPPU, in one of the best abbreviations ever) of $25. That would be fine if the game cost $25, but it's actually a free-to-play game. People get access to the basic game for free, but can speed up progress and improve their own village by purchasing Smurf Berries. A handful of Smurf Berries costs $1, while a wagon of Smurf Berries costs $100. There are buckets and barrels and bushels and wheelbarrows full of the fictional fruit for decidedly non-fictional denominations in between.

"As much as I might want to rationalize a separation between the games I play and Smurfs' Village, the differences are ultimately slight, and--when viewed from the outside--inconsequential."

So even though most people who play Smurfs' Village will never spend a dime on it, those who do are blowing an average of $25 on the social gaming treadmill. Even if they just drop $5 a week on the game, that adds up to $260 a year for a depth-free diversion designed to do nothing more than keep suckers feeding their Smurf Berry addiction. They will blow that money compulsively parting with real money to buy fake money to improve their fake village. And in the end, they'll get tired of the game and move on, or Capcom will just pull the plug on it when it stops being profitable. Either way, all the time and money they spent on that free-to-play game will be gone forever, pathetically wasted with nothing to show for it.

And then I thought of what I've done with my free time for the last few weeks, how I killed hours upon hours playing The Pinball Arcade on the PlayStation Vita, trying to get the last trophy on the Ripley's Believe It Or Not table. "That's different," I thought at first. "That has gameplay and challenge, and I'll always be able to play the game because it's not tied to servers that have to be online." While those things are true, they are also things that wouldn't matter to a non-gamer. They were not factors my parents considered when I was younger, when I spent summer vacations with Street Fighter II or The Guardian Legend. To them, I was just throwing away precious time on an activity that offered no enrichment, no personal development, nothing to make me a better human being.

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Economists agree the Smurf Berry is not a strong currency on which to build a marketplace.

But I didn't care then, because I was having fun. I was being entertained by a medium that resonated with me in a way my parents didn't understand. But as much as I might want to rationalize a separation between the games I play and Smurfs' Village, the differences are ultimately slight, and--when viewed from the outside--inconsequential.

So now I realize how my parents felt watching me spend my days in front of the TV, saving virtual princesses and winning World Series that never were. I understand how one's disapproval of the entertainment another engages in can sap the activity of meaning or purpose, can frame it as wasted time of no benefit to anyone. And understanding that, I realize that the way my stomach turns when I see free-to-play schemes profit by playing on simple compulsions is really no different from what Thompson must have felt watching Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto sell millions by appealing to base impulses. The most uncomfortable part is that this understanding, this identification of hypocrisy at work, hasn't really changed the way I feel. Not about free-to-play games, not about my own gaming, and not about Thompson.

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