“Bored under lockdown, I found myself utterly addicted to mobile gaming – and wound up getting my account blocked as a result.”
“My name’s Kayleigh, and I’m addicted to mobile gaming.”
As a rule, I like to consider myself a sensible person. Sure, I have a silly side – one which usually makes itself known via my penchant for dinosaur print shirts, Jim Henson movies and haphazard approach to baking – but I keep a level head where it matters. I always aim for five fruit-and-veg portions a day, rarely splurge on something I don’t need, and never ever try to rescue hot cross buns from the toaster using a knife (not without switching it off at the plug first, anyway).
With this caveat in place, then, you can understand my colleagues’ surprise when, during our morning meeting, I confessed that I had spent £100 on in-app purchases over the weekend. Possibly more, if I’m being honest. It’s so hard to tell when it’s funneled out of your account in £1.99 increments, isn’t it?
Regular readers may remember that I’m a hobbyist gamer. By which I mean that, while I avoid playing anything online (I tried it once with a VR headset and it did not go well), I love plugging into my PlayStation and losing myself in a good role-playing game after a long, hard day at work. It helps me relax, promotes good mental health, and helps me feel… hell, I don’t know. Slightly more in control despite the increasing chaos of the world around me? Something like that, anyway.
Despite this, I’ve always looked down my nose at mobile gaming. In fact, that’s how I ended up in this situation in the first place – I saw a social media ad for what looked like a truly terrible game, and I decided to download it (for free!) so that I could play it semi-ironically and make fun of it. Or, at least, that’s what I told myself I was doing.
Choices: Stories You Play, for those who don’t know, is a little bit like those Choose Your Own Adventure books so many of us used to read as kids. You choose a story, customise your main character, and… well, you play, controlling the story via the friends you make, conversations you have and actions you take during the course of the ‘book’.
The Royal Romance – in which you play as a young waitress from New York, who gets swept up into a world of courtly intrigue and social politics when she catches the eye of Cordonia’s crown prince – seemed popular among the app’s fans, so I went for it.
I chose my character’s name (Ciri, after another famous video game heroine), selected one of the many glossy hairstyles on offer, and launched straight into the ‘Once Upon A Time’ intro. I served a rowdy table of bachelors at my NYC bar, we got chatting, and I ended up spiriting Prince Darrin away to show him the Statue of Liberty (even in virtual mode, I am nothing if not courteous and accommodating).
We shared a lingering glance, a special moment or two, before he informed me that he had to return to his kingdom. Why? Because he had to attend a series of courtly events and be introduced to nobility’s most eligible single women, in order to choose his future queen. Of course. That’s royalty as we all know it, thanks to glossy Hollywood films like The Prince And Me, Cinderella and Coming To America.
Naturally, though, the story doesn’t end there: my character soon found herself sponsored to attend royalty’s version of The Bachelorette, and we hopped on a plane to Cordonia, with nary a care in the world for our paying job and grotty apartment.
This brief introduction to A Royal Romance basically proved itself to be my gateway drug. And, honestly, it’s been so much fun: I’ve learned a few words of Italian along the way (to help me get ahead in court), the story has proven itself silly but gripping, and I’ve really enjoyed the slushy romance of it all, in spite of myself. It’s been an excellent distraction from the coronavirus lockdown.
There’s just one problem: unbeknownst to me when I first started playing, one must dig deep into one’s pockets to impress at court. It costs diamonds (the game’s virtual currency) to buy the outfits you need to dazzle the Cordonian press and win the approval of Prince Darrin’s parents. It costs diamonds, too, to unlock special scenes with key characters. And it costs diamonds to do basically anything fun, like slip out of the royal ball for cronuts, or follow your royal lover into a hedge maze, or make friends with your fellow bachelorettes.
The problem with these diamonds? Everything basically demands you have 25 of them… and you only unlock two per chapter. This means that, if you want to get ahead, you’ve gotta spend real-life money. It’s £1.99 if you want 20 diamonds, £4.99 for 60, £19.99 for 250, £38.99 for 550, and a whopping £99.99 for 1,500.
Not knowing how many of the bloody things I’d need, I started off small with a smattering of £1.99 purchases. Then, slowly finding myself drawn into the story, I convinced myself that £4.99 was a good deal. Later, I dropped £19.99. And again. And…
You know what? It doesn’t matter how much money I spent. And, yeah, I obviously should have known that some part of me would fall for this idiotic game’s charms and paid the £99.99 upfront. It would have been bloody cheaper. But I didn’t, and I failed to do so, and here we are.
If you thought diamonds were the only cost in this game, you’d be wrong. To unlock each chapter, you need a key. You get one key every three hours, and chapters take about… ooh, 30 minutes max to play through? In lockdown, that’s a lotta chapters you’re burning. Which means, yeah, you’ll probably end up paying at least £9.99 for an additional 30 keys at some point, too.
And then there’s the time you dedicate to this thing. I spent my entire weekend staring at my phone, agonising over my ‘choices’ and genuinely torn between Prince Darrin and a number of other potential suitors they hurled into the story. My boyfriend, utterly bewildered yet still sweetly supportive (he didn’t know about the money at that point, god love him), kept asking me “how the coronation was going?”
My friends, too, were intrigued to learn more about my new addiction when – at some point during our weekly catch-up – I covered my face with my hands and told them about what I was doing with my spare time. About the ridiculous high romance of it all. About my insatiable need to follow the story through to the end.
“Ah, it’s the classic hook of the good guy versus the spark guy,” my pal Hannah-Rose informed me, putting her years of watching every rom-com ever made to good use. “Tale as old as time. That’s how they get you!”
They advised that I treat myself, just this once, and see the game through. And so I did, dropping diamonds all over the place to ensure I got the happy-ever-after I was hoping for. It worked! Come chapter 19 of A Royal Romance, I had the prince eating out of my hand, had won the approval of the Cordonian press and people, and had secured a few allies at court. But, just before they announced me as queen, disaster struck – I became the victim of a blackmail plot, my name was dragged through the mud, and I was chucked out of court.
Guess what, folks? There’s a fucking sequel. And then probably another after that, And… and I don’t want to spend money on this, I really don’t, but I also really want to play it through.
“Kayleigh, please don’t bankrupt yourself,” my friend Sarah begged after I filled her in on the situation.
A handful of my colleagues, likewise, encouraged me to delete the app from my phone.
“Kayleigh, you could probably write this story yourself,” insisted my (usually unflappable) manager Felicity, her expression one of amused disbelief when I informed her that I was still playing. “For free! What are you doing?”
Others, though, pointed out that… well, it’s a lockdown and I should do what makes me happy. And, if that’s not buying homeware pieces or new loungewear, then why not indulge in a few virtual diamonds? Why the hell not?
Even my boyfriend, usually so sensible about money, merely raised an eyebrow when he saw me diligently working away at clearing my name. “You have a problem,” he said, “but if it makes you happy, I guess.”
I know why I’ve fallen hook, line and sinker for Choices, of course: playing games breaks the cycle of attention and gives the brain better things to do than focus on potential (not real) outcomes. And, even if we feel anxious while playing a game, we become too preoccupied to imagine the worst. Which is, you know, ideal for these Covid-19 times.
Role-playing games, similarly, allow players to do more than just play – you get to actually create the characters in the game and embark on an adventure that claims to be unique. Consequently, you end up emotionally attached to the character, and the story makes it much harder to stop playing.
But, while PS4 games like The Witcher and Dragon Age: Inquisition only require an initial one-off fee, ‘Freemium’ mobile games are a lot sneakier with their costs. Buying diamonds or credits makes you less aware of the money you are really spending. The discounts for larger volumes of credits feel… somehow reasonable, despite the fact that you’re buying something which has zero material value.
Is it any surprise, then, that a 2019 survey estimated that young people and families could be losing over £270 million each year through in-app purchases? I’m a 31-year-old professional woman who downloaded this game solely to make fun of it: of course, kids and teens are at risk.
I know the solution, of course. I need to stop playing. I need to delete the app from my phone. I need to dust my PlayStation back off and get back to playing games I own, games I don’t have to spend money on. Or I should follow the advice of my manager and write my own bloody story about a royal romance.
And I will. Probably. As soon as I’ve burned through my final stash of keys and diamonds, it’s over.