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What are Microtransactions and How do They Affect Mental Health?


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It is safe to assume we have all sat somewhere trying to pass the time by playing a game on a mobile device. Many games provide a certain amount of “free play” you can expect to enjoy. Some games reset the free allocation every few minutes, whereas some require hours or a day before you can resume accessing free content. So, what happens when the free comes to an end? Often, a small pop-up window will appear offering a few more gameplays (shots, soldiers, letters, words, etc.) to allow you an opportunity to finish a level or win a campaign that you have worked so hard on, only to come up just short.

Often, the fee is nominal. A few cents or a couple of dollars. Usually, it is not enough to make one think twice about clicking the ok button and continuing to play. This is even more true for adolescents and teens who often spend money off mom or dad’s account linked credit card. After all, what’s 99 cents for another 30 minutes of game playtime? This small, negligible purchase is called a microtransaction, and it fuels the success of countless online games we are all familiar with. Angry Birds, Bingo, Talking Tom, Roblox, Candy Crush, and countless more operate on a revenue stream generated from millions of small payments. Microtransactions can lead to significant mental health challenges for someone who struggles with a video game or gambling addiction.

Understanding Microtransactions

When your adolescent or teen (or you as a parent) download a game to your laptop, desktop, tablet, or phone, there is often a warning associated with the download that indicates the game features “in-app” or “in-game” purchases. Although you can elect to skip providing your credit card information at the time of download, it is important to remember that most game platforms (Microsoft, Steam, Apple, etc.) generally have payment information stored from something else and any charges related to in-game play will go to that card, sometimes without additional notification.

These in-game or in-app purchases are known as microtransactions. As noted above, these small purchases provide considerable revenue to game developers who do not charge a fee to buy or download game content. For example, in ROBLOX, users can pay to get unique items, or in Candy Crush, players can pay for additional moves to be used after they have exhausted their free moves for the day.

Types of Microtransactions

Not all microtransactions are the same. There are four primary types of microtransactions your teen may encounter during gameplay.

In-Game Currencies

Easily one of the most common types of microtransaction. This type involves fake in-game currency players can use to redeem for various rewards. Player’s “purchase” the in-game currency with real money. The game uses real cash to in-game currency exchanges to make larger purchases seem like a better deal leading to larger transactions.

Random Chance Purchases

Players are presented with a random “grab bag” of game rewards which could be worth more than the value paid. Real money is spent on the opportunity to open the bag.

In-Game Items

Although the game is free to play, in-game items may be offered for purchase. These items are often far superior to what a player can earn or get with traditional in-game play, and players who have them are clearly at an advantage over those who may not. The only way to obtain these items is by using real money.


Many games have play limits, items that wear out, or objects that can only be used a set number of times before waiting for a refresh. Some games will offer players the opportunity to pay for the opportunity to continue using their item or continuing gameplay.

 The Appeal of Microtransactions

Microtransactions are events or opportunities that occur during gameplay that provide positive feedback to the user. They can stimulate players of all ages in much the same way as drugs, alcohol, or gambling provide a feeling of satisfaction to an addict. Microtransactions are appealing to gamers (some who may be too young to understand they are spending real money) because they offer the incentive of some form of gameplay advantage. Often, microtransactions only cost a few dollars, which, in the short term, does not seem like much. However, before long, a few dollars evolve into hundreds of dollars per month as the desire to gain a competitive edge, win or just play one more round overtakes the gamer’s sensibility or is beyond a teen’s ability to understand.

Microtransactions are often more harmful to adolescents and teens because they may not have the cognitive capacity to understand how microtransactions work. Pre-teens may not realize the money is real and must come from a payment source of some kind. They may also not understand how quickly a dollar here and another dollar there can add up to a hefty bill at the end of the month.

Microtransactions also appear as part of free games in the form of pop-up ads (between game rounds) or along the perimeter of the gameplay area. Game developers build advertising into “free games” that users are forced to watch unless, of course, they pay to “upgrade.” Upgrading to a premium version or ad-free version of a game is another form of microtransaction. In this case, developers rely on in-game ads becoming so annoying (or time-wasting) that players will pay a dollar or two to rid themselves of their presence.

Microtransactions, Addiction, and Mental Health

Several theories suggest using microtransactions in the gaming industry can lead

to gambling addictions or gaming addictions based on how the user interacts with the microtransaction. Like many other behavioral addictions such as gambling, video game addictions can lead to various physical and psychological health impacts for people of all ages. First, a teen who has developed an addiction to video games is likely to experience a variety of negative mental health impacts. This can include new or worsening anxiety, depression, and difficulties with loved ones and family at home.

Anxiety develops or worsens when a gamer cannot complete a level, continue to play, or interact with the game in the way they desire. Depression can occur for similar reasons. Like other behavioral addictions, symptoms of anxiety and depression will continue to worsen without treatment at a teen-focused treatment center like Beachside. Additionally, ongoing gameplay either through microtransactions or otherwise can lead to various other mental health impacts, especially social impacts when an adolescent or teen lives solely in the online world. The desire to continue gameplay, socialize with in-game “friends,” or defeat a new game level can supersede other vital social interactions for adolescents and teens.

Consistent gameplay through microtransactions can also lead to significant cognitive challenges for your teen. When games are their sole (or primary focus), they may find it difficult to forge and maintain relationships with peers outside of the online community. For teens who are shy or struggle socially, the online environment often feels far safer as it provides social interaction without the face-to-face element. This idea is highlighted well in a documentary published in 2014 by Blizzard Entertainment called “Looking for Group.”  The documentary helps explain how anyone, regardless of social skills, ability, disability, social phobia, or other perceived limitation, can feel “part” of something in the online environment. Although this can help some adolescents and teens develop relationships and feel part of a social group, it can also lead to difficulties in in-person settings such as school, work, or other social settings.

Microtransactions and resulting game addiction may also lead to difficulties concentrating or focusing on other tasks such as work or school because the lure of gaming is stronger than the desire to complete or participate in obligations.

Caring for Your Teens Mental Health

The most effective way to address addiction and mental challenges stemming from microtransactions is to address the root challenge, which is likely video game addiction. Unfortunately, with its most recent release (back in 2014), the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM did not highlight or provide criteria to address video game addiction. Although this sounds surprising now, it is reasonable to believe that video games and other technology addictions were not considered prominent issues in 2013 or the 14 years of development and revision preceding the release of the text. Sadly, this leaves something of a gap when seeking diagnostic criteria for gaming addictions.

Fortunately, the DMS does provide criteria for gambling addiction which shares many of the same symptoms as gaming addictions. Because video game addiction does not have listed diagnostic criteria, there is a limited body of research that provides support and guidance for treatment. However, this does not mean that video game addictions are without remedy or treatment support. Because video game addiction often presents symptoms similar to other addictive behaviors, similar treatments, including behavioral therapy and peer support groups, have shown to be successful.

A widely used behavioral therapy model is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT sessions, either individual or group, are designed to help the patient examine their behaviors to better understand why they occur. Once they can understand their thoughts (in this case, around video games) and think about them carefully, they can learn ways to change their beliefs about excessive video gameplay and how to still play video games but in a healthier way, without relying on microtransactions to further gameplay. As your teen participates in therapy, they will learn how to change their behaviors and beliefs about the positive and negative aspects of video gameplay. They will also learn about behavioral modification options such as play limitations, reduction in playing, or eliminating gaming altogether. Together with their therapist, they would find ways to set healthy and attainable goals and work towards reaching them.

If you are concerned about your teen and how microtransactions related to gameplay may impact their mental health, contact the team at Beachside today. Without treatment, excessive gameplay can lead to detrimental physical, psychological, and financial effects. The caring and compassionate, the teen-focused team here at Beachside is here to help your family understand how microtransactions affect mental health.

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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