Dec 17, 2012

Kickstarter is a casino

Kickstarter is a video game casino. That's the appeal, really, when you dig down into it. But hold your stones: my job here isn't to judge, merely to question. Like a casino, Kickstarter isn't good and it isn't evil, but it does affect us. We need to be aware.

A Kickstarter fever has seized the minds of gamers across the Internet. Gaming news outlets are hooked on Kickstarter failures, successes, drop outs. No simple fad, the word refuses to slip off of our public lexicon. Not after Double Fine Adventure or Wasteland 2 or Project Eternity or Barkley 2 or a thousand other games worth thousands of millions succeeded.

On one level, fans hold onto it as a new mode of publishing. On another, nostalgia works to bring back old genres like the ARPG and the space sim for one last hurrah. But a simpler thing keeps us hooked.
Kickstarter merges philanthropy with gambling.

Kickstarter fan Brett James of
At blackjack, you slap money down on a green felt table and play the house. In Kickstarter, you only lose it if the project is funded, but it's an (inverse) situation not far removed. The key to any type of gambling - blackjack, horse races, poker, and now Kickstarter - is what it gives the player:
Gambling makes us feel worthwhile. When we win, we react with pride, courage, and a strong sense of self-esteem....One gambler who had just picked a winner at the track put it best. His friends were making fun of him for his "undeserved" luck when he retorted, "Luck my ass. Who do you think I am, a nobody?"
                                                                                      - Lance Humble,  
                                                                                      The World's Greatest Blackjack Book

Or, in more academic terms:
Traditionally, gambling originated from religious rituals and quests for spiritual experiences (Reith, 1999). The change in societal structure, from a communal pre-modern system to the modern society, has led to collective psychological changes, such as feelings of increased alienation, accompanied by losing a sense of direction or purpose in life, and a probabilistic mindset (Giddens, 1991). The macroscopic changes altered our cognitive landscape, reciprocally influencing macro and micro changes in our societies....Gambling in the modern era fulfills our desires for upward mobility, control, and ontological security.
                                           - Robert Grunfeld, Masood Zangeneh,
                                           Lea Diakoloukas, Religiosity and Gambling Rituals 

In the special case of Kickstarter, the player/donator has their feelings reinforced by joining a social community. Messaging other players/donators on game boards, posting comments, and Tweeting links each individual player to something larger than themselves. Just look at the comments on message boards and news stories on the last days of any Kickstarter for the community pulling together to bid more money towards the project, some of them even admittedly dipping deep into their savings to help out. "Addiction" is not a bad word for it, and it links Kickstarter further to gambling.

Kickstarter fans of

But the main difference between normal gambling and Kickstarter gambling is that if the Kickstarter fails and you keep your money, you lose; if it succeeds and they take your money, you win, although you may still end up losing in a more traditional manner.

No casino in the world could convince people to play those odds, but Kickstarter has by joining giving to gambling. The site may continue to have a big impact on gaming, but let's keep an eye on it and ourselves as gamers before we find our wallets emptied so that we can pay for people who make us pay.


Anonymous said...

Is gambling really the best metaphor? What is the payout? Are people mostly thinking about the odds of the Kickstarter not reaching its minimum? I thought the reason Kickstarter took hold is because it's a new way to externalize their own tastes and self-identity and it largely acts as an outlet for many years of repressed desires for underserved gaming markets. Is anybody really watching intently whether they'll hit some kind of jackpot as a result of pledging money?

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