Just When You Thought Free-To-Play Gaming Couldn't Look Any BleakerS

The free-to-play model has been taking hold in the west. More and more games are being designed around letting people play to their heart's content, then monetizing the game in other ways once players are invested in the game.

Writer/roustabout/troublemaker Michael Thomsen has written a scathing critique of free-to-play gaming titled "Will Work for Fun." In it, he argues that the trend towards free-to-play is redefining gaming and turning the act of play into a perverse sort of labor, one which players agree to pay to undertake.

Dispiriting as they may be, it is very difficult to argue with Thomsen's assertions about the nature of free-to-play. He breaks it down thusly:

The original Super Mario Bros. defined the console blockbuster with more than 40 million copies sold worldwide. After going free-to-play, Angry Birds has been downloaded over 700 million times (though some versions are still sold for 99 cents). The scope and stakes of videogame commerce have irrevocably changed, and, in a way, the value of the medium has degraded as a result. Designers are no longer selling games to people who want to buy them, they are selling their audiences to advertisers. Worse yet, they are using them as an interactive form of muzak, creating a lively backdrop against which the small percentage of people willing to spend money on new quests or in-game trinkets will feel more likely to spend.

I told you it was bleak!

After that, Thomsen gets into murkier territory, describing games as "the experience of being ruled," insofar as the "best" video game players are the ones who have mastered the rules they were given.

That is certainly one way to look at it, but I don't agree with his assertion that rule-sets necessarily negate "true play," which he defines as, in its purest form, "a creative act negotiated between two people without intermediary."

After all, rule structures do allow for play, and sometimes even encourage it—for example, not all jazz can be free jazz. There's a huge amount of freedom to be found inside the framework of a composition, just as avant-garde composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen discovered in the mid-20th century.

For a more accessible counter-example, take sports—there are rules to sports, accepted frameworks, and still play is possible. I'm not certain I'd say that unconstrained imagination is necessarily a fundamental aspect of play. Then again, that's not exactly what Thomsen is saying—he's sure to be clear that he's talking about play in its purest form. And in that sense, pure improvisation and play are untethered by rules. Which raises the question of whether play is enhanced by structure, and... well, that's a can of worms that can remain closed for now.

But Thompson's opening barrage against free-to-play hits sharply and resonates. The implications of the free-to-play revolution are far-reaching and, when viewed for what they are, can be troubling indeed.

Will Work For Fun [Kill Screen]

(Top photo | Adam Michal Ziaja/Shutterstock)