“I was like you once,” says an old man with a beard down to his belt, sitting in the corner of a bar. You think he’s talking to you, but maybe he’s shouting in hopes that someone will listen. “I told myself I’d never buy loot boxes or heroes or none of that,” he whimpers. “How wrong I was.” Twist: the old man is me.
For the longest time, my policy with games like Overwatch and, more recently, Fire Emblem: Heroes was “earn or die... or go play a different video game.” Slowly but surely, though, things changed. Here, today, I’m going to chronicle the agonizing process that transformed me into a penniless pauper who shouts in bars—an old twenty-something rich in skins, but poor in friends, love, and life.
I’m somebody who lives what you might call a spartan lifestyle. My walls are largely blank, I have two pairs of shoes (formerly one), and my wardrobe is more functional than flashy. Microtransactions that are largely cosmetic in nature (because fuck pay-to-win shit) shouldn’t appeal to me. And for the longest time, they didn’t. I’d earn the odd skin here and there in games like Overwatch, and that was enough. Sure, my characters looked like scrubs in their plain-jane battle pajamas, but as long as I didn’t play like one, what did it matter?
God damn it, Grayson. You said you weren’t going to cry. But I started to care, and that’s how they got me. See, it’s one thing to play a game and enjoy its mechanics. It’s another thing to identify with a character on a personal level—to start throwing around words like “main” and “we’re married, so you’d better step the fuck off”—and that has a way of putting you in a different headspace. I am Pharah, and Pharah is me. When I play as Pharah, I feel something akin to euphoria. I come away with my hands shaking, not because of adrenaline, but because it’s like I was just ripped out of my second skin. I wish I was exaggerating.
To be clear, I’ve cared about plenty of characters in games over the years, but mainly ones in single-player games that didn’t feature heavy microtransaction components. This thing with Pharah in Overwatch, though, is different. I found myself wanting to give her things, and there was a way for me to do that immediately. I didn’t want a virtual person who was precious to me to be wearing the in-game equivalent of sackcloth, for crying out loud. In that respect, giving a shit about video game characters is a lot like having a family, except they’re incapable of reciprocating your feelings and you still die alone.
So I bought a couple skins, because really, what was the worst that could happen?
They say that making a bad decision isn’t the thing that kills you. It’s rationalizing a bad decision that does you in, because then you can do it over and over forever. In Overwatch, buying a skin made me feel good, as did giving a shit about characters. Soon, I found myself maining other folks in addition to Pharah. D.Va, Roadhog, and Lucio joined my little murder family. They needed skins, too! I didn’t want to turn into Some Kind Of Addict, though, so buying a loot box here and there—to compliment the ones I unlocked through play, of course—seemed like a fair compromise.
This worked perfectly... for about two weeks. See, every time I went to buy a couple loot boxes, I noticed that a few more dollars would get me so many more. Splurging isn’t bad if you don’t do it regularly, right? I mean, that’s why it’s called splurging! So I began to occasionally splurge, especially during seasonal events, because what’s the point of living if you don’t get all the limited-time-only skins, right? Haha, RIGHT?
Soon, my habit (as well as the associated justifications) spread into other games. Recently I picked up Fire Emblem: Heroes, a game where you don’t need to spend a dime. You earn orbs to randomly unlock new characters from the Fire Emblem series’ billowing roster, BUT you can also buy them. On top of that, while five orbs will unlock one hero, each subsequent hero costs less than five orbs if you choose to unlock multiple heroes in one go. Obviously, the optimal thing to do is earn around 20 orbs, cash out, rinse, and repeat.
Sometimes, though, I don’t have time to rack up that many orbs in a single play session, but I still want to experience the sublime rush of seeing a tiny anime man with great abs appear in my hand. “OK,” I tell myself, “I’ll just unlock one with the orbs I’ve earned and be done with it.” But then, inevitably, it’s some snot-haired doofus I can’t tell from (fellow popular anime character) Oscar The Grouch.
Like Overwatch, Fire Emblem contains characters that, over the years, I’ve allowed myself to care about. And so I decide to splurge just a teensy bit, because I want Chrom or Erika or somebody whose story I know. And it’s just a few dollars!
Surprising fact for you, folks: SPLURGING ADDS UP.
The loot box gleams. The hero orb quivers, ready to crack like an egg laid by Jesus Christ Himself. I shudder in anticipation.
I get crap. Every single time.
When this happens—and it almost always goes this way—I feel a surge of emotions. The shame parade is led by those two dread horsemen, Anger and Sadness, with Disappointment, Regret, and Embarrassment bringing up the rear. Of course, I need to find somebody to blame.
But I mean, it is kind of these games’ fault, right? They’ve married fun mechanics—Overwatch’s shooting and Fire Emblem’s strategy and progression—to the worst parts of gambling. It doesn’t help that the game designers are clearly aware of this. Overwatch’s loot box algorithm gives you cardboard boxes and Ronald McDonald jumpsuits for the heroes you actually play, and Fire Emblem: Heroes presents you with an optimal orb usage path, but tempts you into spending money at every possible turn. Modern games put you in good spirits by being, you know, fun, and then they prey on that optimism like hungry fun vultures.
This can’t possibly be my fault! As with all that violence I do, video games are clearly to blame here. There’s no way that my own poor decision-making played into the hands of systems that are kinda exploitative. Nope. Couldn’t be.
But then... a light. A Fire Emblem hero orb gives me a five-star Corrin. An Overwatch loot box begrudgingly spits out a cool D.Va skin. Maybe there’s hope after all.