The Ethics of Pay-to-Win

posted by on 23rd January 2014, at 5:02pm

For some reason, people are ethical… meaning they are aware of and concerned with the rightness and wrongness of actions. This recognition of right and wrong (or moral compass as it were) is something that distinguishes humans from all other life. We even have rules in place for many job fields such as medicine and accounting concerning ethical conduct. However, for most people, choosing to live rightly or wrongly comes down to a personal choice. But not every issue or action falls clearly on the side of being either right or wrong. Inevitably, this leads to conflict and disagreement over the issue of ethical behavior. When it comes to gaming, there is no greater ethical issue that comes to mind other than Pay-to-Win games.

What is Pay-to-Win?

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a Pay-to-Win game is simply a game which provides players an option to spend real life money in return for some kind of advantage in said game over other players who don’t pay. If that’s still not clear, the highly trusted and reliable Urban Dictionary has two other definitions of Pay-to-Win that may help. The first is “Games that let you buy better gear or allow you to make better items then everyone else at a faster rate and then makes the game largely unbalanced even for people who have skill in the game without paying.” The second definition is not as helpful and provides more of a cynical view of games of this nature: “The sad truth of the free-to-play business model.” To be clear, Pay-to-Win in the simplest terms has to do with a player gaining a measurable advantage over another player that can only be obtained by paying real life money. Cosmetic items and other objects available through real life purchase in a game that do not give a measurable advantage to a paying player over non-paying players are by and large not considered to be problematic or unethical by most gamers or the author of this article.

What’s the main ethical accusation of Pay-to-Win?

What is the ethical dilemma of Pay-to-Win? Is it even an ethical issue in the first place? First, let’s consider what the main objective of a game is. Typically, people play games for enjoyment or entertainment. So long as a game meets the basic requirement of providing enjoyment or entertainment, then players are satisfied. However, when another player playing the same game has an “unfair” advantage, then there is an issue. This usually comes into play in multiplayer games where gamers are playing the same game and are pitted against each other in a sort of competitive environment. When more than one player plays the same game and is compared against others, then the idea of fairness becomes a major issue.

Gamers are very strict and immovable when it comes to the idea of fairness. If a player is suspected to be cheating, hacking, scamming, or otherwise doing something to gain an unfair advantage, other players get very angry very quickly. But why? If we’ve established that a game is about enjoyment or entertainment, what does it matter what other people do even if it’s considered unfair? Many of us have experienced and it should be obvious. Players do not like to feel their game play belittled by the unfair play of another. This belittling, however trifling or serious, ultimately detracts from any personal enjoyment or entertainment that may be gained by players.

So, now that we understand gamers’ belief in a level playing field, let us consider the ethics of fairness. The general consensus in society is that it’s better to be fair than not to be fair. It is fair that two friends share a $20 they find on the ground than one friend keep it for himself. It is fair that the rich pay more taxes than the poor because they have more money. It is fair that a male and female worker get paid the same amount for doing the same job. Yet, we see unfairness everywhere in many different ways. It’s not fair that if you didn’t get your homework in on time that you should be allowed to turn it in later and still receive a grade. It’s not fair for someone to cut in line at the store. It’s not fair that some people can get away with a crime while other’s get caught. Fairness, as it cannot be absolutely enforced, is often an unrealized hope. But nevertheless, it doesn’t mean we don’t think of fairness in right or wrong terms.

Ethically speaking, anything a person does that gives them an unfair advantage over another person in regards to performing the same task, completing a goal, achieving an accomplishment, or getting further ahead in a career field is generally considered as being wrong. It’s not fair (and not right) that a person gain an advantage over another person through means not available to all. What is right is that people have equal opportunity to achieve regardless of external factors. This is why we have rules against athletes using PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs), insider trading on the stock market, or accountants fudging tax returns to name a few instances

What would this look like if it were applied to gaming? If all players were to have equal opportunity to achieve, Pay-to-Win could not exist. The influence of real life factors would have to be eliminated to keep a fair playing field. Pay-to-Win gives an unfair advantage to players who just so happen to have more money than everyone else to throw around. Money shouldn’t determine who the best is or who can get the farthest. Games are about having fun and investing time. Pay-to-Win takes away the fun and reduces the time invested, causing at the very least a feeling of dissatisfaction with the ease of achieving goals.


Is Pay-to-Win an ethical issue? I would assert yes it is… and it’s a bad issue at that. Pay-to-Win takes away from purpose of a game: enjoyment and entertainment. It focuses attention on external factors, not personal time and effort invested into a game to achieve a goal. Not only does it anger and belittle gamers who play fairly, but it also takes away from the gamers themselves who participate in paying to gain an advantage. What fun is a game if you can pay money to reach a goal or level faster? If anything, it only implies that you are so lazy to play or work hard to achieve in a game that you need the help of external factors to do what others can without those factors. To gaming companies themselves, it’s an easy way to make more money. To gamers, it’s a way to achieve without actually having to do as much as everyone else.

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