An in-depth view of the Gacha system in phone games and it’s ties with gambling and addiction
The gacha system: the loot boxes of Japan. A certified way for companies to guarantee that a slice of their userbase will surely spend their well-earned cash on some sick .PNG waifus and husbandos.
Surely, it’s the best and worst thing about most games that incorporate it – the yin and yang of the rage and bliss regarding the rare golden and rainbow rewards. But what makes it so addicting and how does it work? Read on to learn all about this infamous dopamine dispenser.
To define “Gacha”
First we need to define it. What is the Gacha?
• The most common gacha system in phone/mobile games is any system which takes in some sort of in-game currency (i.e. gems) and gives you items of varying rarities.
• This currency is typically rare for the normal player but can always be purchased with real money.
• The goal is usually to collect the rarest, most powerful or most meaningful items, or to collect in general in order to complete a set or theme.
• Each game has it’s own well-defined “drop rates;” the chances a user will have to obtain a given item or character through each “roll.”
A pretty straightforward system; a system that might make you suspect developers want you to gamble away all your hard earned cash? You’d be right, that’s the reason it’s been kept in place over the years.
Not all Gacha is made equal
Now let’s make the obvious clear from the start: not all games are the same, and thus the gacha’s influence on gameplay varies from one game to the next.
In F/GO the gacha is not only important, but vital. The player rolls to acquire characters, however not rolling for or getting the right ones may leave you lagging behind your fellow players. Even worse, it could mean that you are flat out unable to pass certain difficult areas if you haven’t devoted a lot of time in-game or planned for it far in advance. Another factor in play here is the fact that F/GO uses already well-established and well-loved characters from an existing franchise, an edge a lot of games lack. This distinctly higher desirability of the characters makes spending money seem more “worth it” than it actually is.
BanG Dream! GBP! / a lot of the idol rhythm genre
On the other side of the gacha spectrum we have a different setup when it comes to granting resource access to players. From the start, all of the characters are unlocked. Instead the player rolls for different costumes, along with stronger versions of the characters that are wearing them. They aren’t necessary, you can have fun and do most things in the game casually without spending money. Here, the player can feel more contempt for the spending, knowing that they are not investing in the start of the so-called “relationship” with a character, but are instead building it up or “strengthening” that relationship.
Both of these methods have proven to be solidly effective at keeping games afloat in the Top Grossing charts in their respective marketplaces. But what are the effects on the users?
The science behind it
Often times you’d hear about a “whale” spending tens of thousands of dollars getting their favorite gacha drops, not regretting a single thing, and you ask yourself: “How can they afford that?”
Well, there’s a good chance they can’t.
Thrill seekers, risk takers, and even addicts will gladly risk it all for the grand satisfaction they desire. This effect is only worsened by the perceived emotional attachment players share with the characters and rewards they aim for.
I think we can establish that spending money on the gacha, like it or not, shares many aspects with classical gambling. In the simplest terms, you throw in money and hope for a low chance reward. But we can establish a few key differences:
• You never actually get any money back, instead only potential satisfaction. This differs from the loot box crazes of Steam games like CS:GO, where your earned loot box skins can actually sell for upwards of hundreds of dollars (and even more in some cases).
• The conscious decision of spending while knowing all you can get is in-game items and not your money back, distances gacha from normal gambling by typically lacking any economic incentive: gamblers and those in need are (usually) not keen on spending their last dollar on a gacha where there is no monetary gain to be had.
• Most games use so-called “nets” to stop people from paying too much money, but these nets see only varying degrees of success. The key here being that unlike casinos that stop you from spending or kick you out, the majority of phone game gachas instead reward you with a special currency after spending a certain amount of money, which you can later use to pick one of the prizes you were rolling for.
• You can spend time in-game and unlock gacha currency, although only in limited amounts. Spending time into a casino with no money just nets you annoyed stares.
• The player spending money on a gacha could be spending out of a desire to support the company and developers working on the game.
In the end, the gacha is just one aspect of the game. Although it has a lot of focus, you can always stop and be attracted to a different aspect of whichever game you’re playing, which is something you just can’t do in a casino surrounded only by money extractors.
Despite the things listed above, the psychological aspect of rolling the gacha is undoubtedly similar. And it all has to do with dopamine and its discovered link to gambling and addiction.
A rundown on addiction
When we engage in behavior that is fulfilling to our primordial needs, such as reproduction, food consumption, etc., the reward system in our brain activates to let out a chemical called dopamine, giving us a wave of satisfaction and encouraging us to repeat said behavior.
In this same exact way, when our brain is stimulated by addictive drugs, the reward system can pump out up to 10 times more dopamine than the natural amount.
Continued exposure to such drugs makes the limit of what is considered “normal” much higher, thus your natural dopamine intake is suddenly not enough, leaving you craving more. At the same time, neural pathways connecting the reward system to the prefrontal cortex (the impulse control center of the brain) weaken. As a result, addictions are hard to let go.
Connecting addiction to gambling
A few decades ago, the idea that gambling could be classified as an addiction was far from a popular opinion, and counselors or therapists rarely told their clients it was such. Instead, the grander psychiatric community agreed that pathological gambling is more of a compulsion than an addiction, and was even “treated” in the way a compulsion would be.
Contrary to that method of approach, current research suggest that, to put it simply, all the things occurring in the minds of drug users also occur in the minds of serial gamblers. Just as an addict’s consumption increases, so too do the number of risks a gambler would take. Further, they both suffer from similar withdrawal effects when separated from their chemical, vice, or thrill of choice.
A heavily cited 2013 study by Marc N. Potenza has confirmed the connection between dopamine and problem gambling.
The problem comes in two ways. On one hand, our brains are conditioned to get the same satisfaction from gambling as meeting our survival needs, this is hard-wired and cannot be changed. On the other hand, game developers are currently free to exploit this with little to no restrictions. However, this appears to be changing as some EU countries are beginning to regulate or are completely banning them.
Most video game titles that incorporate loot boxes and gacha exploit such biological tendencies for monetary gain. As slot machines in gambling halls are engineered to appeal, so too are in-game gacha systems. Every sound, press, and color is designed to produce positive feedback. Even the in-game currencies you spend are something akin to poker chips, where real money’s value is being hidden away by a flashy item.
The fact that gacha games are on mobile devices makes it even worse, as the gateway to spending is always next to you and the means to do so are likely already present on your phone.
For the aforementioned, I would like to indicate that I am far from knowledgeable in the field, and have instead heavily referenced works from the NYU Dispatch and author Ferris Jabr from Scientific American.
So I’ve been going on as if gambling and gacha are the devil himself, here to take your life, but that wasn’t my point. Instead I want to bring awareness to the fact that it can become a real issue, and that it’s not shameful to reach out for help if you’re struggling with keeping away from needlessly spending money. I am not against gacha nor gambling in general. It has brought me so many amazing moments and adventures in my life (an article for another time), but I also know an equal amount of stories where someone spends more than they can and come to regret it later on (also me).
“For most people it’s expensive entertainment. But for some people it’s a dangerous product. I want people to understand that you really can get addicted.”
Shirley – former gambling addict and current peer counselor in a treatment program for gambling addicts
How did you like this one? Should I do more things like this or am I not cut out for it? Any and all feedback will be extremely appreciated. At first I was aiming to cover a lot more with this article, but was quick to find out the project was a bit too ambitious for me. Either way, thank you for reading and have a nice day.