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"Game of Thrones: Conquest" and "State of Survival" players like Charissa Keebaugh (left) and Paul Mazey (right) felt pressure to continue paying to play or risk losing their friends and community. Photos courtesy of Keebaugh and Mazey.

‘Game of Thrones: Conquest’ and ‘State of Survival’ Players Say They Felt Addicted and Pressured To Spend

Players of the popular “freemium” mobile games say spending thousands became necessary to remain a part of tight-knit online communities. “I felt it was my duty,” one said.

The mother was on her way home when she received the call. It was her husband, and he sounded frantic, saying that he needed the passcode to the phone their teenage son used, immediately. When she asked what was wrong, it was hard to believe what she heard: In three weeks, their son had racked up over $6,000 in charges—as later stated in a lawsuit—which had gone unnoticed for weeks as their family became overwhelmed with veterinary bills.

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There was little question from where the charges stemmed. Ever since the summer of 2021, their 14-year-old son had been enraptured by a popular, lo-fi mobile game called Game of Thrones: Conquest. The Virginia-based parents had rarely allowed video games in the house, and because the game was very social, they worried about the potential for inappropriate adult interaction as well. But their teenage boy—who has a primary immunodeficiency—had been quite isolated during the pandemic, and the game was rated appropriate for children 12 and up. So, reluctantly, they allowed it, so long as he did his school work and practiced his instruments.

All had gone well for a while. The boy went months without ever spending money on the game, and even said that the people he played with loved to talk about current events. So after they found out about the charges, the parents asked if anyone had pressured him to spend.  The boy said no—but his mother said he also seemed to feel “at the very least internal pressure” to help his team by starting to make in-app purchases, which was exacerbated when he found out the family dog was dying.

“He said he felt like he had to support his team,” the mother told Motherboard. “He felt responsible to them.”

Ever since the pandemic, the mobile “freemium” games Game of Thrones: Conquest and State of Survival have surged in popularity, becoming two of the most downloaded games on both Apple and Android as isolated people around the world searched for connection. The games, which are free to download, are highly social strategy games in which online strangers form co-dependent teams that become critical to their collective success. State of Survival, for instance, is a zombie apocalypse strategy game in which alliances are critical in order to better tackle challenges together and make sure settlements thrive. “Make allies and forge strategic partnerships to survive the horrors of the infected wilderness,” the game’s creator states. “Your survival is at stake!” (The game has partnered with brands like The Walking Dead and DC Comics in the past.)

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At first, players find both of the games to be easy and rewarding even when they don’t spend any money, and often quickly start to form bonds, chatting with the other members of their alliances on Discord and the phone about the game. Deprived of meaning elsewhere during the pandemic, though, players told Motherboard that the games started to consume their lives. As they became increasingly dedicated, the games became increasingly hard to play over time, and in order to further advance, they started to feel the need to make in-app purchases of valuable “packs” of items like building materials and armor. While the cost of individual “microtransactions” can be as little as 99 cents, they can add up over time to tens of thousands of dollars. Because of the co-dependent nature of the game, though, players felt pressure to continue paying to play or risk losing their friends and community, the players said.  

“It was literally any way you can get money to grow your keep, do it,” said one teenage player. Once players proved to be big spenders, customer representatives would check in with them when they didn’t, two high-spending players said.

Some of the players and parents are now trying to take matters into their own hands, forming groups to rally for fairer games and filing class-action lawsuits against Warner Bros., the owner of Game of Thrones: Conquest, and the video game developer FunPlus, which owns Start of Survival, and KingsGroup, its mobile strategy game-focused subsidiary.  The minor who spent more than $6,000 in three weeks is among the plaintiffs in the Game of Thrones: Conquest lawsuit. 

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Neither company responded to repeated requests for comment. Warner Bros. motioned to compel arbitration after the lawsuit was filed in February, but the court denied the motion last week. The State of Survival lawsuit was filed in September.

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The lawsuits argue that in both Game of Thrones: Conquest and State of Survival, continuing to advance through the game “through in-game labor alone” becomes all but impossible, which means those who wish to advance must spend money in order to continue on. Referring to State or Survival, for instance, the lawsuits state that to reach one particular level of the game without making any purchases, “it would require close to 16 months of playing two hours each day, 365 days a year.” Alternatively, the lawsuit continues, “instead of devoting countless hours to progress in the game, [players] can simply purchase” packs that over time that quietly add up to $1,400. 

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The games are “designed to create a sense of urgency” when it comes to paying money, partially by “bombarding players with advertisements and invitations to buy additional packs and resources whenever they reach a point in the game where their progress has stalled,” according to the State of Survival lawsuit. In many cases, these packs are promoted as limited-time discounts; Game of Thrones: Conquest even adds in an hourglass timer that counts down. “You feel under pressure to buy it,” said one State of Survival player of such deals. But the lawsuits claim that the “original pricing that these ads referenced” was “fabricated.” 

In this way, the games are not as free-to-play games so much as “pay to win,” as attorneys put it in the State of Survival lawsuit—in which the creators foster and then capitalize on their own users’ “addictive behaviors.”

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When Charissa Keebaugh got a job, her first paycheck was for approximately $500, and she started to spend most of her paychecks on the game, she said, which made her team happy and her as well for a time. “Being able to feel a part of something kind of depended on being able to spend,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Charissa Keebaugh)

Like a lot of players, Charissa Keebaugh started playing Game of Thrones: Conquest a few months after the pandemic hit, when there wasn’t much to do. 

Back then, Keebaugh, one of the plaintiffs suing Warner Bros., was a junior in high school, and the game seemed like as good a way as any to pass the time. The game was billed as “the official GoT empire-building strategy experience” on mobile,” in which people can “forge alliances” in order to “rise to dominance” and conquer Westeros. Almost instantly, she fell in love with the community she found within the game, and not only because of the isolation so many people struggled with in 2020. A foster kid, Keebaugh had grown up in an abusive household, she said, and struggled to find a tight-knit group of friends at school. “I was kind of that lonely kid,” she said.

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By comparison, the people she met through Game of Thrones: Conquest seemed to truly care about her. They knew how young Keebaugh was and could hear people screaming at her while she was on calls. Concerned, people offered to fly her out to their home and move in with her. One even said they would rent a bedroom for her so she could get out of her situation. “They definitely were very nurturing,” she said.

That strong sense of community drew many people into the mobile games during the pandemic, often through Facebook advertisements. The games also allowed people to ignore the pandemic-driven drudgery of their real lives, and they made the players feel good about themselves in ways they hadn’t replicated elsewhere. Many started to feel a genuine sense of obligation to the people they met.

“I felt like I was responsible for other people, and I felt it was my duty,” said Paul Mazey, a gardener in England who played State of Survival. 

But that same sense of meaning and dedication also sometimes developed into unhealthy habits. As Mazey rose up the ranks and became the joint leader of a clan, taking on the responsibility of planning events, he started to dedicate 12 hours a day to the game and think about it constantly. That he could play State of Survival on his phone made it all the harder to put it away for any significant period of time. 

“The addiction, it just progressively became worse and worse and worse,” said Mazey. “You feel compelled to be on the game all the time.”

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Outside of the game, his life became materially worse. He became withdrawn, and it started to affect his work life, relationship, and sex life. His appetite suffered, as did his sleep. “I was just so absorbed and addicted,” he said. “All I could think of was a game. That’s how my mind was. My mind felt like it was controlled.”

Others played the game even more. Ohio resident Staci Turner, another plaintiff, had never been much of a gamer when she saw a Facebook advertisement for State of Survival in 2019. But soon, she was sometimes playing over 15 hours a day and seeing the people in her group as her extended family, speaking to some of them from the minute she woke up to the moment she went to sleep. Once the pandemic hit, Turner’s group helped one another through tragedy as well. Players have dealt with the loss of their spouses and parents due to COVID-19. One player lost a child. “We've been through much more than the game together,” she said.

As a result, she felt a moral obligation to keep going. “You feel like you would let everybody down in your alliance, if you were to stop playing, because they rely on you so much,” she said. But that responsibility negatively impacted her real-life relationship over time. “I would stop hanging out with my friends in real life and my family just to play this game,” she said. Even her teenage boys asked why she was spending so much time playing a video game.  

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That Paul Mazey could play State of Survival on his phone made it all the harder to put it away for any significant period of time. “The addiction, it just progressively became worse and worse and worse,” said Mazey. He spent approximately $46,000. (Photy courtesy of Paul Mazey)

When she first started to play Game of Thrones: Conquest, Keebaugh, the teen, loved everyone; it seemed like they started on an evening playing field, even the people who couldn’t afford in-app purchases like her.  

But after a few months, her fellow players started to tell Keebaugh she needed to carry her weight and start spending money on the game; anyone who didn’t start to pay was slowing down the allegiance that had formed to win the game together, which people started to make clear to her. 

“They were all kind of pressuring me,” Keebaugh said.  

Keebaugh was worried. She got the sense the friends she had made might start disassociating with her or even kick her off the team if she didn’t start spending. But there was no easy way for Keebaugh to contribute money to an online game. For one thing, she didn’t even have a debit card. “I would literally have to go to the store with cash, get a prepaid Visa and do it that way,” she said. Sometimes, people would even pressure her to get a job in order to buy packs.

That financial pressure was not unique to Keebaugh. Other players said they have seen others make good on threats to kick out people who won’t pay from the community. “They will boot you, even if you've been with them for years,” said Angela Prado, a long-time State of Survival player and plaintiff in the lawsuit against the gamermaker. “I have seen it firsthand.” 

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When Keebaugh finally got a job, her first paycheck was for approximately $500, and she started to spend most of her paychecks on the game, she said, which made her team happy and her as well for a time. “Being able to feel a part of something kind of depended on being able to spend,” she said. “I started spending and then felt more a part of the team.” At the time, she was just about to turn 17 years old.

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The plaintiffs have alleged that the “original pricing" the games' ads used to promote limited-time deals was “fabricated.”  (Photo from complaint filed by Kronenberger Rosenfeld and co.)

Angela Prado felt a little sick after hearing how much she had spent on State of Survival, even though the California resident knew she had played a lot. Since late 2019, the game had provided an escape from her life. Often, she would wake up and immediately sign on, sometimes pulling all-nighters and playing 18 hours, and felt like she always needed to be present and playing the game. 

Prado’s family could see the mental and physical toll the game was taking on her, and she knew it as well. Still, when a customer service representative told her that she had spent at least $196,000 on the game, she couldn’t quite believe it. Prado’s lawyer, Raphael Janove, said other players spent similar amounts. “Since launching these lawsuits, we have heard from hundreds and hundreds of gamers. Many report spending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. 

Such moments, when the realities of the world meet the fantasy of the game, occurred for the other players. For Mazey, the British gardener, it was when his partner was preparing to move out of their apartment. “I saw the hurt and the pain that was on her face,” he said. It was then that he sat her down and told her just how much the game had taken over his life. She had known he had played, but she didn’t know the true extent, or even that he had ever spent money on it. By then, he had spent £40,800, or $46,000. Today, he doesn’t believe the game has anything to do with strategy or skill. Instead, he said he believes “it's just a money pit.”

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Keebaugh knew it was time to walk away soon after she turned 18, when she realized she could not afford to play the game and rent an apartment at the same time. Still, it was hard to leave. As a child, she had reached out to people at school about her home situation to little to no avail. But these people had listened to her, and, maybe more importantly, they understood, in some minute way, what she had gone through at home. 

“It was very difficult to leave,” she said. “Getting rid of it completely, it hurt.”

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Even though people can spend thousands within the game, "Game of Thrones: Conquest" is rated appropriate for children 12 and up. (Photo from complaint filed by Kronenberger Rosenfeld and co.)

Toward the end of last year, Turner started to question the game she had dedicated her life to for the previous two years. She had started to pay for in-app features in State of Survival a long time ago. But over time, she had started to spend as much as $1,000 a day and more than $60,000 in total. The game seemed to constantly have new features she needed to spend more on. When she wasn’t spending as much, a human representative for the game would reach out to ask if there was anything wrong, she said. (Mazey said that he also experienced this.)

“The minute you stop spending or they see a decrease they're messaging you asking, ‘We've noticed that there's been a decrease in spend, is there something going on in the game that we can help with?’” Turner said.

But when Turner successfully obtained a $2,500 refund from the Apple Store after discovering that State of Survival had charged her multiple times for in-app purchases, she soon found she was no longer able to make purchases within State of Survival, according to the lawsuit and her lawyers. The same thing also happened to Prado. 

Turner had since started a public campaign to give State of Survival players a voice, and today the group has 3,500 members united in the hope of making the game better and more equitable, she said.  

Another person who decided to take action is the mother of the boy who spent $6,000. Her son is now a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Warner Bros. related to Game of Thrones: Conquest. In the lawsuits concerning Game of Thrones: Conquest and State of Survival, the allegations are more or less the same: that the games aggressively cultivated “addictive behaviors” and pushed paid features as special deals with “false former prices to induce players into believing they must act quickly to take advantage of a limited-time sale price.” 

The plaintiffs allege false advertising and unfair business practices, and Prado, Turner, Keebaugh, and the unnamed minor are all a part of the suits. But they and Mazey also believe the questions related to the game can’t be settled within the legal system alone. These games had taken over their lives and ruined them, sometimes financially, sometimes physically, sometimes mentally. It’s hard to say whether the fault lay with the companies, the communities, or themselves, but one thing is clear at least to Keebaugh, the teen who picked up a job to afford the game.

 “I had joined it,” she said, “under a completely different impression of what it was.”