Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Understanding Consumer Harm in Online Multiplayer Video Games

  Hannah Mary Heilbuth (2022 cohort)

This research aims to understand consumer harm experienced by gamers in online multiplayer video games. Consumer harm (or Consumer Detriment) means any loss, damage, or negative impact experienced by a consumer due to the design decisions made by a company to influence consumer decision making. This includes financial loss, psychological distress, negative impacts on mental wellbeing, and consumers being pushed to make decisions that they do not want to make or otherwise would not make.

There are concerns among legislators that elements of video games may cause consumer harm to players.

Many countries have tried to regulate loot boxes (a video game mechanic where in exchange for real-world money, players receive a randomised in-game reward of uncertain value). Current regulation relies on the assumption that there is a simple, clear-cut relationship between individual problematic game mechanics and the consumer harm players are experiencing and that therefore, removing the mechanic will eradicate the harm.

However, it is unknown whether the harms experienced in video games are specifically linked and solely attributable to problematic mechanics or whether they stem from a nexus of harm created by the immersive video game environment.

There is little research into the impact of these harms or how to identify those most likely to be negatively affected by them.

Regulating an individual game mechanic stops that mechanic appearing in games but without a better understanding of the consumer harm experienced by players, it is impossible to know whether regulating an individual game mechanic will successfully reduce the harm it sought to address.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand what constitutes consumer harm in video games.

This thesis will answer the following questions:

    1. What harms do gamers experience in online multiplayer video games? Who are the people most affected?
    2. What methods can be used to measure the intensity of these harms?
    3. How can a better understanding of video game harm be used to protect consumers?

This research will answer these questions through a qualitative methodology that draws on the lived experience of consumers.

It is important that gamers are involved in the research process and contribute to the process of understanding gaming harm because any attempt to understand consumer harm should be informed by the individuals experiencing that harm. Through user-centric HCI methods such as participatory design, input from both harmed and non-harmed gamers will be incorporated into this PhD.

The research findings will be used to formulate a new conceptualisation of consumer harm in video games that better captures gamers’ lived experiences as well as psychological understandings of harm.

This work will amplify the voices of harmed gamers, help develop a more complete understanding of the consumer harm experienced in video games, and contribute to the ongoing discussions about how to ensure effective consumer protection in video games. This research may also have an impact on wider understandings of consumer harm particularly in relation to immersive, digital mediums such as social media platforms and the Metaverse.

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (UKRI Grant No. EP/S023305/1).