With the release of Star Wars Battlefront II, the furor over loot box microtransactions has seemingly hit critical mass. EA’s response to the anger on Reddit has become the single most downvoted comment on the site ever, and its “Ask me anything” thread didn’t fare too much better. Belgium is taking the first step to legislate against it by investigating whether both Battlefront II and Overwatch should be considered gambling because of its loot boxes. People are, quite rightfully, angry about loot boxes.
Throughout all of this, there has been one, constantly-repeated proposed solution to the problem: Variations of “vote with your wallet”, “hit ‘em where it hurts” and “don’t like, don’t buy” are thrown around in response to any sort of criticism of loot boxes, as financial damage is the only thing that will ever make a big publisher see sense. Except… it isn’t true. Repeating “vote with your wallet” isn’t only factually incorrect, it also dooms resistance to predatory microtransactions to fail before it gets going.
As a customer, boycotting is good. It encourages you to think critically and ethically about your purchases, and displaying moral fibre over wanting The Hot New Thing is always good. For example, I boycotted point-and-click adventure Armikrog because of the producer’s views on gay rights. Despite loving the look of it, I haven’t bought it to this day. I’m by no means disputing that boycotting it isn’t an effective tool in the “consumer rights” toolbox (let’s ignore the fact I hate referring to people as “consumers” for the moment), but successful boycotts which aim to cause real change in an industry do so much more than that.
Successful boycotts all have a few things in common, according to Daniel Diermeier at the Harvard Business Review. They’re carefully organised to damage reputation as well as the bottom line – Diermeier uses the example of the boycott against the much higher-profile Apple to improve working conditions at supply chain provider Foxconn.
More importantly, they’re often lengthy, loud, and obstructive. The wider public more than likely doesn’t care about (or doesn’t understand, which is practically the same thing) the issue at hand, and so remaining in their consciousness through sheer volume and longevity is crucial. This is particularly true for gaming, as it has an incredibly short collective attention span. Companies know to just keep their metaphorical mouths shut, and eventually, the anger will pass on to the next big new thing. Subscription fees, DLC, microtransactions, day-one patches; we’ve moved on to so many “bigger fish” over the years, and ignored the heaving mass of smaller, carnivorous fish to fester.
This is why “vote with your wallet” is the worst advice you can give when trying to bring about industrial change. It’s the defeatist’s approach to activism – “oh gosh these companies don’t see me as a human, so instead of reminding them that I am… I’m just going to impact less than 0.00001% of their income and not say anything… ho hum.”
Your money doesn’t have a mouth, so quietly not engaging with business practices you find predatory doesn’t do anything useful. It’s slacktivism, making you feel good for doing something, but without the actually doing anything. For every person quietly boycotting, there are another dozen who buy into loot boxes – the “whales” as they’re so dehumanisingly called. Boycotts aren’t solely about hitting executives in the wallet, they’re about loudly telling people why something is a problem in a way that makes them listen and understand so that dozen maybe becomes six, then three, then one, then zero.
How does an individual “consumer” help bring about lasting change? Volume. You pressure mass media into covering the issue (which it has, so that’s a promising sign). You boycott the content producers who promote loot boxes through box openings, and you tell them that you are doing so (politely, harassment does nothing)– if EA is Foxconn, content creators are Apple, the one who stands to lose the most from damaged reputations. You have conversations with your non-gaming friends and family about why this is a problem they should care about, especially if they’re guardians of children who are most at-risk of predatory business practices. And, most importantly, you don’t lose track. Gaming is an industry where new nonsense comes at you every single day, boycotts live and die on their longevity. Think of it as a war of attrition rather than an assault on the main gates.
I wince at the sight of anyone referring to themselves as “a consumer”, because it disregards their own voice and social capital, which are, conveniently, the two things that executives are terrified of. Boycotts aren’t passive – you not liking something and so not buying it isn’t a boycott. Not buying it, then telling others why you’re not buying it, and doing that for a lengthy period of time? Encouraging and supporting other people to do the same, while cutting off those who continue to perpetuate the thing you’re taking a stand against? Now that’s a boycott, and that’s how change happens.