Gamers escaping coronavirus lockdowns have seen their virtual savings slashed in hit video game Animal Crossing, highlighting the limited rights users have to digital property.
Players of the viral Nintendo Switch game received a notice saying interest payments on the virtual ‘bells’ currency were being reduced, with gaming media reporting the rate was cut from about 0.5 per cent to 0.05 per cent and maximum interest payments capped.
The rate cut will make it harder for players to build up wealth through savings, although most earn ‘bells’ by catching bugs or chopping wood, which can be spent on other virtual assets like furniture and plants to develop their desert island.
The sudden change – which mirrors central bankers slashing rates to cushion the financial blow of the coronavirus pandemic – shows how consumers have fewer rights over their digital property than they might expect, say digital law experts.
“This change by Nintendo helps illustrate that consumers have very limited practical control over digital assets and environments,” said Aaron Perzanowski, professor of law at Case Western Reserve University in the United States.
From finding the perfect outfit for every occasion, to decorating your home just the way you like, there's plenty of ways to show off your style in #AnimalCrossing: New Horizons! Share some of your stylish outfits and homes in the replies! #ACNH pic.twitter.com/vCREIuSQvi— Nintendo of America (@NintendoAmerica) April 29, 2020
Companies can “use their unilateral power over code to disrupt consumer expectations and change the rules of the games they create without notice, much less consent from their customers”, he added.
Japanese game maker Nintendo did not respond to requests for comment.
The video games market is set to more than double in value to US$300 billion (S$424 billion) by 2025, data and analysis company GlobalData estimates.
As lockdowns were introduced around the world to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many people turned to video games to pass the time and socialise with friends virtually.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons has become a hit since its release in March, with gaming research firm SuperData reporting it had five million digital sales in a month, a record for console games.
Players took to social media to complain about the slashed interest rate, with one user who called themselves Stouph writing on Twitter “8Mil bells and this is my interest. The new interest rate is horrible!”.
Players have little control over such changes, while game licence agreements typically give no ownership rights over virtual assets, researchers and legal experts say.
“This episode highlights that players often engage with video games having little or no awareness or understanding of the contractual arrangements to which they have agreed,” said Michaela MacDonald, an expert on video games law.
As digital goods rise in popularity, there may be a push to reconsider systems that give fewer rights over virtual assets ranging from games to books than the physical equivalents, said MacDonald, who is based at Queen Mary University in Britain.
But the response of gamers to changes varies considerably depending on the context, said Federico Fasce, a game designer and a lecturer at Goldsmiths University.
In the case of Animal Crossing, a game where players can easily find and gather resources, the rate cut is unlikely to be a major sticking point for most fans, he said.