Pay-to-play? Belonging through consumption in commercial games

Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes

Children and adolescents are visible and connect to others through things, both tangible and intangible. That is, consumption plays an integral part in belonging. Belonging in peer groups may take place in social arenas, such as physical locations or abstract contexts – like virtual gaming platforms.

Playing video games is currently the largest hobby among Norwegian adolescents. Importantly, it is also one of the most expensive hobbies. This suggests that games are yet another social arena where economy plays a part by creating conditions for participation, social relations, and (in)equality.

Two teenagers sitting together holding gaming controllers.
credit: pexels mikhail nilov

It is important to stress the many favorable and constructive effects of playing video games. Games provide an arena for numerous positive activities, such as creativity, learning, and social interaction. For instance, games can facilitate social relations between players or evoke positive affect through immersive emotional gameplay sequences. Moreover, some studies indicate that playing games can provide cognitive benefits, such as quicker and better learning, faster and more precise attention control, improved problem-solving, and increased visuospatial abilities

A girl laughing with a gaming controller in her hands.
credit: pexels alena darmel

However, games also represent a multi-billion-dollar industry. This is reflected in the estimated global revenue for 2022 at over 200 billion USD. The commercial success of the gaming industry has further increased during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, as Norwegian children and adolescents have been spending more time and money on gaming than before the coronavirus outbreak.Hence, gaming is a thriving industry, where mainstream games are becoming increasingly commercialized. Most commercial games employ a variety of revenue strategies, including subscriptions, microtransactions, virtual products, merchandising, and advertising. Thus, games are designed to make players stay and keep them spending their time and money in-game. When players enter such a marketplace in games, they are met with a sophisticated design intended to influence their decision to purchase virtual products, where in-game shopping is framed as fun and playful and default choices are made salient in the shops.

Boy holding a controller
credit: pexels tima miroshnichenko

The market tactics of games are not a new notion. Commercial markets have long acknowledged and utilized the fact that we belong to others through material things. Building on inclusion (and exclusion) mechanisms, the markets offer various types of clothes, cosmetics, and other products that are tailored to specific activities, specific genders, specific ages, specific neighborhoods, and so on. For instance, a pair of sneakers cannot (or rather should not) be used for both running and playing basketball. Instead, separate pairs are needed to fit in with the norms for each activity – norms that tend to be heavily influenced by commercial market actors and their economic interests. The gaming marketplace is designed in a similar fashion. Most commercial games have their own in-game store where players can buy a wide variety of virtual products. The products are tailored to specific game characters, holidays, seasons, events, and so on. Players typically sort these products into two main categories: functional and cosmetic items. Both types of product categories tend to have some sort of symbolic meaning, where the purchased product only reaches its full value when it is made visible to others and provides a type of social reward.

A girl using a VR headset and controller to game.
credit: pexels cottonbro studio

The social significance of consumption in games also appears in previous research with children and adolescents. Such studies, although limited, suggest a social stigma related to not having the most expensive, newest, and coolest in-game gear and accessories. Players who are willing or able to spend money in-game tend to get significant advantages over players who are unwilling or unable to do the same. Hence, consumption in-game can be highly important for young people to feel a sense of belonging to peer players. The notable role of consumption in games is also evident in the fact that commercial games are increasingly treating children as active, individual consumers with their own disposable income.

Gaming console with super mario game on it.
credit: pexels pixabay

In fact, income levels have a demonstrated effect on young people’s experiences on digital platforms and can lead to discrimination, shaming, and status concerns. In some contexts, having the ‘correct’ consumer products may signal in-group belonging and social status. Whether children and adolescents can or cannot afford such status markers and, importantly – show them off to others – might have an impact on acceptance and belonging among peers on gaming platforms. Previous research has largely neglected to explore any potential positive outcomes of consumption in gaming, such as effects on well-being, inclusion, and participation. This provides a substantial avenue for future research on children’s belonging in social arenas.

Girl gaming with three screens
credit: pexels rodnae productions

Author bio

Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes is a PhD Candidate in Behavioral Analysis at Oslo Metropolitan University and a researcher at Consumption Research Norway. In her PhD, she investigates social inclusion among young gamers through their consumer behavior.

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