For Science: Exploitative monetization, pathological gaming, and the Proteus effect


Our newsroom is overflowing with interesting academic papers relevant to gaming – let’s round a few up, shall we?

First, we’ve got Unfair play? Video games as exploitative monetized services: An examination of game patents from a consumer protection perspective by David King et al. The researchers examined “design strategies” and patents for such strategies designed to part fools from their coin, with a focus on those that could be considered exploitative, like those that make use of behavioral tracking and data manipulation. Remember those creepy patents for algorithms that would determine when someone was going to quit and then give them a little win to keep them around and buying more? Yeah, like that.

Pathological Gaming in Young Adolescents: A Longitudinal Study Focused on Academic Stress and Self-Control in South Korea by Eui Jun Jeong et al. summarizes a longitudinal study of kids to determine the root cause of “pathological gaming” – the sort that the WHO “gaming disorder” classification is meant to pinpoint. Researchers found that “academic stress,” as in “excessive interference” by parents, “increased the degree of pathological gaming” more strongly that just gaming time alone. The implication, as one of the authors noted on Twitter, is that gaming disorder is not likely to be “an independent disorder brought on by gaming itself directly”; instead, “some kids immerse themselves in games to deal with stress,” making pathological gaming “a symptom more than stand-alone disorder.”

Finally, Avatar characteristics induce users’ behavioral conformity with small-to-medium effect sizes: a meta-analysis of the proteus effect by Rabindra Ratan et al. was published online just a few weeks ago; it’s a meta-analysis of research on the Proteus effect – that is, the long-running idea that “people conform in behavior and attitudes to their avatars’ characteristics.” The paper found it a reliable effect.

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Robert Mann

I hypothesize that the Proteus Effect is in fact nothing. The players, I argue, already have a disposition toward what is going on, and it is nothing more than the act of focusing on something that brings out more of that side or their nature.

This correlates to things outside games, and social factors on behavior.

The idea that the character affects us is false, we merely regulate the portions of our own personality such that when in a position to express ourselves more freely we do so. Given this regulation is normal, an ‘effect’ based entirely upon gaming is out. Of course, that’s just my hypothesis here, so I’m not stating anything proven, merely what I think.

Hikari Kenzaki

Well.. I do buy a LOT more white and blue clothing now…


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The biggest issue with exploitative monetized services (IE: Game that gives you a win before you quit) is the problem is too large to ever actually be managed.

For one, proving that these systems are implemented is basically impossible. I honestly can’t think of a single game I’ve ever played where the player base doesn’t come up with crazy tinfoil theories about shadow nerfs and unannounced game tweaks.

For two, you don’t exactly need to file a patent to implement that kind of stuff. There are numerous ways to manipulate RNG numbers such as weighting the outcomes (IE: Just cause there’s 10 outcomes doesn’t mean there’s a 1:10 chance of achieving each outcome) and you can do all that on the fly and change them at will.

For three, enforcement of any policy is extremely cost prohibitive. There are hundreds of thousands of PC, Console, and Mobile games out there. Even if you could get a company to comply and force them to hand over their code for review (China, anyone?) the sheer volume of people you would need to review such things would be absurd.

Finally, even if you do manage to expand an agency to handle the workload of existing games and future games all of that is going to cost a lot of money. Where do people think the money to fund those programs will come from? There’s a few answers here none of them really good.

The simple reality is people are going to have to take the time to educate themselves and prepare themselves for the idea these companies are out to extract as much money as possible from you and are willing to go to some manipulative levels to do so. There are many other industries beyond gaming that do this as well so it’s not a bad thing to learn.

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The Proteus Effect paper made for a fascinating read. It definitely makes a nice change of pace given how many papers in the field are studies of exploitation and/or addiction.


I like the study on the proteus effect, its not something I’ve come across before so was fun to read! I definitely notice my behaviour changing in game (and to a lesser extent out of game) depending on the character I’m playing. BUT, only if I can make that character look like what I want it to look like.

For example, when playing my dwarf champion in LotRO, with undercuts and a big beard, covered in metal and wielding two axes, I felt more like a bezerker and so made my character act more that way (and also became a bit more reckless myself). But, when playing my female captain, I became much more reserved but also more authoritative.

I always just considered that roleplaying (in a loose sense), interesting to know that it’s the proteus effect!

As for pathological gaming, I know from my own self-examination that my gaming is an almost pure defence mechanism – I escape into games. Sometimes, it’s escaping negative feelings (i suffer from depression), sometimes its searching for something I don’t find in real life (usually a sense of achievement). It’s very rare that I just play a game for its own sake. That said, my use of gaming as a defence mechanism is something I learned as an adult, when I was a kid (and under academic pressure) gaming was just something fun to do with friends.


I though the Pathological gaming one interesting although that might be because it supports what I had already thought to be true. Lets face it we all need to watch out for confirmation bias if for no other reason then others will use it to control us.

To often we try to treat the results of stress rather then the cause. If you take away someones coping mechanism without dealing with the underlining problem the results can be tragic.

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François Verret

As a long-time role-player, I definitely want to read that last one on the Proteus effect.