Interlude: How I spent RM1,000 on a mobile game

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 25, 2019 - March 03, 2019.
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I do not often buy non-essential items apart from books and sports equipment. So, when I told my close friends that I recently spent RM1,000 over several months purchasing virtual items on a mobile game, they looked at me in disbelief before bursting into laughter.

Well, spending RM1,000 on a game may seem acceptable to a hardcore gamer, but I do not consider myself one. From an investor’s perspective, that amount of money could be better spent on stocks (Sapura Energy Bhd was trading at about 30 sen per share at the time of writing) or kept in a fixed deposit that generates about 3% interest a year. Even buying tangible items such as books or sports equipment seem to be smarter options.

I first stumbled into the world of mobile games last year, when I saw an advertisement on Facebook. Curious, I clicked on the ad and decided to play the game. After playing it for a month (but not spending any money on it), I lost interest and moved on to another real-time strategy mobile game called Rise of Civilisation.

This is how the game works. It lets you pick a civilisation (I chose China as I consider myself a “Chinaman” at heart), build an army, expand your alliances and conquer a kingdom. While building up a city within your civilisation, the game allows you to level up your buildings, armies and technologies pretty fast, requiring only minimal resources during the early stages of the game.

As you progress to the later stages, the expected time and resources (such as a specific amount of food, wood and stones that you need to gather on the gaming map) increase. For instance, you may need over a hundred million resources and a month to upgrade a building or technology compared with just a million resources and several hours in the early stages of the game. The urge to buy gaming items to boost resources and shorten the time needed emerge when you become impatient and frustrated.

The impulse to spend money on gaming items really kicks in when you and your team members are attacked by other players or when your kingdom is under siege. The phone screen keeps flashing red, signifying that a war is underway, and all of a sudden you have the urge to, well, be the guardian and saviour of your team and kingdom. You are eager to contribute to your team (or so-called alliances) and yearn for the respect of other members.

That is when you move your fingertip on the screen, click the purchase button and authenticate your purchase simply by using your thumbprint. Then, the phone vibrates, signifying that the transaction has been completed. It is that easy.

The newly purchased items reduce the time needed to build up your army, upgrade your building or heal your army personnel so that you can send them back onto the battlefield almost immediately.

Another way the game’s developers make you spend money is by introducing several characters (fashioned after real-life historical figures) that possess unique skillsets that deal massive damage on your opponents. For instance, one character is Minamoto no Yoshitsune, one of the greatest commanders and samurai fighters in the history of Japan. Other characters include Julius Caesar and King Richard I of England.  

Well, you can guess that upgrading to these legendary commanders, as they are called, does not come free. In addition to tapping into your desire to become a powerful game player, it could turn you into an obssessive collector without realising it. Very much like a luxury car owner who not only wants a Ferrari but also a Lamborghini, Maserati, Bentley and an Audi.

The process to purchase these items is so easy and convenient. All you need to do is press a few buttons on your phone and that is it.

After several months of playing this game intensively and looking at my RM1,000 expenditure, I decided to stop clicking on those purchases altogether. While I still play the game occasionally, I have not spent a sen since.

This whole experience has prompted me to think twice about whether a truly cashless society that facilitates immediate payments and transactions is all that great. We now hear that QR codes, e-money and blockchain technology are the latest buzzwords and that reducing the need for fiat money is something the country should move towards.

But there are potential downsides if we are not careful. Consumers could be more vulnerable to impulse purchases that could erode their ability to save money for their long-term good. It is even scarier to think that we may not be aware of how much we have spent until it is a little too late.

By comparison, the use of paper money and ATMs lengthens the transaction process. In doing so, it gives us space to think before deciding whether to purchase the item. Using this scenario, would I have spent RM1,000 on the game if I had to physically go to an ATM to withdraw money before making a purchase? No, I believe I would have given up on the idea even when I was on my way to the ATM.

Above all, the most important lesson I have learnt from my mobile game experience is that financial education is becoming increasingly important as the world moves towards a cashless society. Technology is changing the way people behave and we need greater awareness and proper knowledge to use technology to our advantage.

Also, as a matter of full disclosure, I have now turned my attention to playing games on my friend’s Nintendo Switch. I am seriously contemplating buying one of my own. After all, for a tangible item that costs only RM300 more than what I initially spent on the mobile game, it is totally worth it, right?