Vague Patch Notes: You cannot win on pay-to-win

It's not, it's just ugly.

I want you to put a game in your head that you think is pay-to-win. No, you do not have to say it out loud or write it down. For one thing, I won’t be collecting your papers at the end of class, and I won’t hear you if you say it out loud. For another, it doesn’t actually matter what game you say because no matter what game you pick – however transparently you might think it’s pay-to-win – you will find people who will argue vociferously that it is not pay-to-win, and in fact some other title is pay-to-win.

Bonus points if “some other title” is a game you particularly like.

I’ve talked before about how pay-to-win is ultimately a garbage term for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean people have somehow stopped throwing the term around. And so a lot of people, reasonably, think that if you can prove game X is not pay-to-win, or game Y is pay-to-win, you can establish a baseline. And it’s worth exploring that side of thinking. You cannot, in fact, win an argument about whether or not game X is pay-to-win. Ever.

Let’s start by establishing something here: We are not, in fact, talking about predatory monetization. Or rather, we are talking about it, but not directly, because the thing about declaring any game pay-to-win is that discussing that isn’t really about discussing the business model or win states or anything like that. It’s a shibboleth.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a shibboleth is a behavior or phrase that essentially marks you as a member of an in-group independent of any actual meaning. Telling someone in the real world to “live long and prosper” or “may the Force be with you” is a shibboleth. The latter phrase does not indicate that you believe in an actual Force which could conceivably shelter someone; it indicates that you belong to a shared cultural group that uses that for generic well-wishes.

This is, in and of itself, entirely normal and natural and deserves no deeper scrutiny. We each use shibboleths every day without thinking on it. Where we run into problems is when a shibboleth sounds or is formulated like it’s the introduction to an argument or a point of consideration instead of just being… words.

Pay-to-win is, in and of itself, a shibboleth.

Captain Amaptain: Civil Wivil

As I discussed in that aforementioned article, “pay-to-win” as a term requires you to first define its meaning before arguing that anything is or is not pay-to-win. That right there shows the problem. If you have to define what something means and only afterwards can argue about whether or not some other element qualifies, well, the term itself means nothing.

That’s not because the component parts mean nothing. Oh, sure, an ongoing game can’t be “won” like a game of chess, but that’s a weak argument anyhow. We all know that “win” is synecdoche for “gain significant advantage” and that every game is a sequence of smaller victories even if you never wind up with an overwhelming final one. Realistically, there is not confusion about what the “win” portion means, nor is “pay” in confusion.

But there are always arguments you can make against a game being pay-to-win, no matter how significant the advantage might be granted by paying money. You’re only getting options. You can earn currency through gameplay. It costs so little that it’s just like buying a box copy. Free players can still do all the content. You never need to pay. And sure! There are lots of games that someone might call pay-to-win that you immediately see and think “that’s wrong.”

However… remember what I just said. “Pay-to-win” is a shibboleth. By calling a game pay-to-win, you are signaling that you are immune to whatever it is you think a game is doing, and perhaps more importantly, you are indicating that you are not available for persuasion with regard to this title.

For that matter, declaring something to not really be pay-to-win is exactly the same action. There’s no real space to argue about Diablo Immortal’s monetization not being predatory as heck, but by arguing that “it’s not really pay to win” you are signaling that you do not want to consider the game’s monetization in any discussion about its virtues. More often than not this comes from an unsurprising place; you know that the discussion will not go well when taking a hard look at a game you have decided to back, and so you are not actually going to engage with that discussion.

If I decide to engage you in a discussion about it, it will be utterly pointless because you will contort the meaning of “win” every which way so that no number of arguments will actually make a point about the game’s monetization. The game will remain just as predatory as when the discussion started, but that argument will fall on deaf ears.

It's pretty bad, seriously.

This is one of the many things that’s really bad for the long-term health of video games as a medium. It’s already been made clear that a lot of people who self-select into a group that defines video games as a major portion of their identity are all too eager to reject empathy or consideration for others in favor of fealty to brand identity. But when you collect people who are also all too eager to just reject discussion of actual issues like predatory monetization by memorizing the right arguments to shut down conversation, you wind up with… well, deliberately harmful games pushed by developers that have a built-in defense squad.

But I think a big part of it, as mentioned, is the performative aspect. This isn’t really being parroted by people who genuinely believe that whatever game is under discussion isn’t predatory; in all likelihood, the speaker hasn’t really considered that one way or the other in any detail. They don’t have to. It’s the same offloading of identity, Blizzard or Riot or Tencent or Microsoft or whoever needs defending, and so you start with the shared signal that first and foremost is about pitching your tent.

This is why you cannot conceivably win on this issue. You’re not just arguing about business models; you’re arguing about something that at least one group of participants in the discussion have made a component of their identity. You cannot persuade someone who is dedicated to game X not being pay-to-win with facts because that’s like trying to prove to someone that she shouldn’t want fried chicken. Identity isn’t that maleable.

Similarly, if someone is convinced that something is pay-to-win, you’re not going to argue him out of it. Trying to define a fuzzy term and then claiming that you’ve proven anything because the definition you made doesn’t match the game you’re defending doesn’t prove anything beyond where you’re willing to place the goalposts. And if you’re talking about a game you already like… well, you’re kind of winning the motivated reasoning championship.

So yes, this is another good reason that pay-to-win as a term is something best discarded. But it’s also a reminder for all of us to be considerate of whether or not people you’re speaking with are, in fact, available for persuasion. Not everyone who says “change my mind” is actually looking to have her mind changed. Most people probably are just hoping you’ll try for their own amusement because their minds weren’t available for changing in the first place.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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