As last week’s blog post might have implied, I’ve been playing a lot of Borderlands lately. My past few nights have gone something like this: finish dinner, sit down in front of my PS4, and make my way through the side content of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, working tirelessly to clear out those last few side missions and free myself of my addiction. Sitting beside me on the garish yet comfortable couch in my apartment is my partner. Normally, she would be at my side both in person and in the game, but given her distain for combat-heavy FPS titles, she is instead caught up in a different kind of grind: those of the free-to-play mobile games Neko Atsume and Candy Crush Saga. I look over at her and jest: “Free to play games, huh? You know those are just designed to suck your life away.” I then proceed to return to my umpteenth hour of scouring the same section of Pandora’s moon in search of rare loot.
The hypocrisy in my jab is clear: Borderlands is not altogether different in structure from a game like Neko Atsume. Just swap out guns for cats and you have the same gameplay of enticement (or ensnarement) through rare reward, an environment that encourages frequent returns to the game world in search of a new prize to transform the player experience and further the cycle of play. And yet I will gladly proclaim Borderlands to be a work of art, something that I am happy to probe in my critical analysis of the medium both despite and because of its many flaws. I will not, however, extend the same label to Neko Atsume or Candy Crush or virtually any game that falls under the “free to play” banner. My problem with refusing these games the label of art is not that such games often lack a narrative, nor is it with the fact that they are overwhelmingly games developed for mobile platforms rather than the PC or consoles.
Instead, my problem lies entirely with microtransactions.