Why are smartphone gaming apps lying to us with their online adverts?

The algorithms in my life have correctly clocked that I am a gamer. Social media, streaming sites, search engines: all know what stories, videos and influencers I click on, and have an unerringly good idea of ​​what I’ll click on next.

The effect of this accumulated insight, though, has been to turn most of my non-work engagement with the internet into a con that would make PT Barnum blush. I refer to adverts for mobile phone games. Speaking as someone confronted with perhaps 100 such ads on any given day, these are a scourge whose unchallenged persistence mocks us all.

In almost all cases, the trick is the same bait-and-switch — purported footage from a game that looks fabulous fun (perhaps involving waves of zombies or gangster empires) but which does not exist or bears no more than a passing relation to the current (vapid or glitchy) game being advertised.

There are various versions of the cone. Common ones involve intricate-looking puzzles, mini-games or role-play situations that either don’t feature when you download the game, or appear so infrequently as to barely exist. Then there are those that wildly exaggerate the pace and underlying nature of the game. Some are creative embellishment, others downright lies, with videos showing alluring scenes of strategy and action that are, in fact, just figments of an animator’s imagination.

All of this advertising fits a tried and tested formula. The $130 billion global market for mobile phone games is not only an attractive playground for the deceivers, it is also so huge that there is a lot of incredibly accurate data that can help them to deceive. The producers of the games, and there are many such around the world, have been testing these adverts on us for years: putting multiple versions of the bait online and then discovering what people click on. They know what plays well and what tricks people fall for. The conclusion, at least now, is that adverts work best when the game in the footage is played badly, and the sucker (you) is invited to download the game and do better.

For the producers of both the games and the ads, this is about numbers. The vast majority of people who fall for the ads will download the game — for free — and quickly realize it is total rubbish. They delete it, and the currency of the transaction has been time and irritation rather than real money.

A few, though, will decide that, despite the disparity between ad and reality, the game they’ve downloaded is worth playing. A small proportion may even funnel real money into the game as they progress, and the sting has paid off.

For advertisers — and the regulators who evidently see no problem — the defense is that nobody pays money without knowing what the game is really like. The exception to this was in late 2020 when the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ordered the gamemaker Playrix to stop using adverts for two games, Homescapes and Gardenscapes, because the adverts did not show “core gameplay”.

The ruling suggested a flood of similar bans that never arrived. And the absence of a hard line has encouraged the tricksters to proliferate, and the sophistication of the con to intensify. The fact that the games are downloadable via platforms like Google Play reflects poorly on their role as regulators of standards. We wouldn’t tolerate this kind of deception on a bus shelter billboard. So what’s the justification for treating the internet as a place where dishonesty is the default?

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