The sixth episode of South Park’s Season 18, “Freemium Isn’t Free,” may be the best of the season yet. The episode satirized free mobile app games and addiction in general, using parallels to alcohol, drugs, and gambling, resulting in a hilarious story-line and how companies exploit the public as a result of greed.
The episode starts with Jimmy introducing a free mobile app game to Kyle. “And the most unbelievable part—it’s totally free!” Kyle, appreciating the seemingly innocuous gesture, downloads the game titled, “Terrance & Phillip: Give Us Your Money,” which would bring out laughs to anyone who knows the true intentions of those who create the free mobile app games.
The screen of the game is almost an exact replica of “Family Guy The Quest for Stuff,” where the start of the app description reads, “Play for FREE.”
Apparently, people can progress through the game faster by paying real-world money for in-game currency. One reviewer of the game, Martin Appleby, wrote: “Takes far to long to progress through game unless you have money to burn and won’t waste it on buying ‘Clams.’ I for one don’t so I used a method to get Clams by other means and now my account has been ‘flagged’ with a warning!!!! Wouldn’t have to use other methods if it was easier to EARN more CLAMS. [sic]” Another reviewer, Jolene Campbell, wrote, “im all for paying money here and there on a mobile game but sadly I seem to be missing out on a lot, the ratio between real money and what it can get you in the game is unbalanced. [sic]”
In other words, the writers of South Park have exposed the “charade” (as the Minister in the show would say) of free mobile gaming in plain sight. They seem to be almost ruthless–if not at least meticulously blatant–about telling their audience how Freemium Gaming works. The “Minister of Mobile Gaming,” who is secretly the Canadian Devil, explains on a white board how it works, after Terrance and Phillip explain that it’s not actually a free game, to which the Minister whispers to his friend, “They see through our charade.”
“This is stupid,” Kyle says. Butters replies, “Well, it’s just $.49 for the cheapest one.” Kyle buys it anyway, earning 200 Canadian coins. The game tells him how amazing he is for doing so.
The writers even arranged various other explanations as to how the scam works with other whiteboards arranged in the scene where the Minister explains how they exploit their customers: “Make highest $ Seem Like Best Deal”—“Game Must Be Playable in 2 Minutes”—“Simple Gameplay. Able To Play On The Toilet.” Unfortunately, these can only be seen when paused, as they disappear in a quick second and are hard to read, as if that in itself is a nod to how sneaky the creators behind mobile game apps can be. “Freemium – The ‘Mium’ is Latin for ‘not really.'”
The Minister explains the RPG Loop to freemium gaming: “Explore, Collect, Spend, Improve.” In another scene, a blocked message on the whiteboard behind the Minister’s head reads: “Push Notifications (Keep Them Random).” And in the final scene where Satan fights the Canadian Devil, one whiteboard reads, “Use fake campaign to feign concern i.e. ‘Drink Responsibly,’” and the left one shows a 8-step chart on manipulating emotional pain so they can feel temporary relief by numbing the pain.
Freemium.org explains what freemium is: “It describes a business model in which you give a core product away for free to a large group of users and sell premium products to a smaller fraction of this user base… apps with freemium models account for 98% of the revenue in Google’s app store and 95% in Apple’s app store.”
It seems that the writers of South Park are exposing a very effective business mobile, or at least trying to make their audiences aware of it, with this episode.
Stan starts becoming addicted to buying things for the game, and his father repeatedly approaches him with bills about his spending. A nod to the previous episodes where he’s portrayed as the famous singer Lorde, Randy asks, “Do you know how many songs I have to write to make back that much money?” Stan replies, “One,” making the audience laugh at how easy that is to pay off. It shows how easy it can be for certain people (like gaming companies) to make a lot of money, whereas bills like these are quite expensive for the average person.
The writers have repeatedly brought back the joke that Randy is Lorde since episode two, and it’s still funny every time. It may be one of the longest and most consistent repeat jokes yet. Another recurring joke is “gluten free” from their second episode, “Gluten Free Ebola,” where Randy was introduced as Lorde. Randy’s wine is gluten free, and Satan also mentions gluten later on in the episode. The repeat jokes are great, and hopefully the writers continue to carry them on throughout the remainder of the season (they do in the later episodes, as if they saw this post and granted my wish).
Stan innocently replies to his father, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I spent that much.” Many of these gamers are just kids, and so they don’t seem the harm or realize the cost when they buy downloadable content (DLC) for a game. With Stan being in an innocent kid being exploited by this business model, it humorously but effectively exacerbates the exploitation to seem evil (after all, the Minister is the Canadian Devil).
A classmate once told a story after reading this blog that she knew a girl who spent thousands on Minecraft stuff, because the site gives access to spending for just a few minutes, and in that short time, she bought everything she could.
Smosh released a new gaming app called “Food Battle 2014.” They tell their audience that it’s FREE, but they never mention that it’s a freemium game. One of the most unbelievable instances of freemium gaming on a console is Warframe, where players can play for free, but spend real money to buy fake, in-game currency so they can buy things in the game. The prices range from $4.99 to hundreds.
This episode is addressing a major issue. Stan’s father, Randy, then likens Stan to his grandfather who has “addiction tendencies.” Later, the grandfather is seen at a Casino, gambling at a slot machine. “Could he have somehow passed those demons down to Stan?” Stan’s father asks. His wife mentions that he also has some of those problems with drinking.
The Minister explains The Five Principles of successful Freemium Games: Simplicity (a simple game), Compliments (praising the player to make him or her feel good), Fake Currency (“Train the players to spend your fake currency,” as he says), Switcheroo (spend real currency for fake currency), Waiting Game (make them wait [for content?]).
Phillip asks if the game can at least be fun. “No,” the Minister responds, “It has to be just barely fun. If the game was too fun, then there would be no reason to Micro-Pay in order to make it more fun.” Unfortunately, this is all true. When a player buys more content after the game grows dull, it’s supposed to make the game more fun, for a certain duration, until the next DLC.
Rinse and repeat.
Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny approach Stan about his addiction, and discover that Jimmy is the one who told them all about the game. In the next scene, Jimmy is portrayed as a drug dealer, except instead of dealing drugs, he’s dealing games, perhaps showing that companies giving away “free” games isn’t honest work.
Terrance and Phillip are worried how dishonest this all is and are afraid people will pay more than they can afford. The Minister cleverly proposes, “How about we take some of the billions of dollars we are making and we start a campaign to teach everyone to play the game in moderation?” Phillip, doubtful, responds, “Do you really think that would help?” The Minister fervently shouts, “Of course! The alcohol industry does it all the time.”
“You. Friends. Fun. Drink. Hot Girls. You’re hot. Drink more. Expensive cars. Ass. Drink. Ass. Money. You in a tuxedo. Threesomes. Vodka. Pussy. Drink, drink, drink! You! Drink! Vegas! Fun! Pussy! You in a tuxedo fuck this girl. Vodka! Drink, drink, drink! Drink it all, you fucking pussy! More Tuxedo! More Cars! More pussy! More Vodka! Drink, Drink, Drink!” And then: “Please Drink Responsibly.”
So, a campaign for games would read: “Please play responsibly,” or,” Please download responsibly.”
Stan and his grandpa are being scolded on the couch by Randy, and the grandpa implies he’s an addict as well. “I’m not having a glass of wine!” Randy shouts. “I’m having six. It’s called a tasting, and it’s classy.” It’s his justification for what he’s doing, his way of not admitting that he has an addiction problem. Stan’s and his grandpa’s justification for their addiction is that it’s “fun.”
Later, when Stan asks Satan why companies put addictive things out there, Satan gives an insightful and profound message on addiction and justification: “Everyone has their own justifications and thinks what they’re doing is okay.”
The sub-plot with Jimmy was interesting and subtly clever in many ways in regards to how it ties in to the main plot. Jimmy represents word-of-mouth on how the game is spread, getting other people addicted to the game as well. “You accepted money from the Canadian government to push a freemium game on us!” Kyle accuses Jimmy, who metaphorically acts as the first “push notification” on users.
Jimmy then explains how it works: “How do you get people addicted to crack? You give it away for free. You give away a little taste, and then—and then some people can’t stop themselves.” He then explains that he needed the money—turns out he was a victim of freemium as well, and spent all of his money on downloads for “Yum Yum Sparkly Gem Forest.”
Jimmy explains that text notifications are a trigger: “A quick image to trigger the addict’s brain.” In the next scenes, Stan falls victim to these notifications. Like most addicts, Stan doesn’t know what he can do to help himself, but wanting help, asks Jimmy, who says, “What all the addiction programs say is true—You’ve got to reach a higher power.” That higher power would be Satan, who represents temptation. “You have summoned the Prince of Temptation for what purpose?” Satan asks Stan.
“Allow me to explain the darkness of the human soul,” Satan says. Then begins a casual conversation about dopamine, how it’s released from people’s brain when they do something pleasurable. “Because humans have progressed and have access to all the shit they want whenever they want it,” Satan explains, “it’s easy for them to overdo and have dopamine problems.” Then he parallels it with being diabetic, how eating wrong can make someone diabetic; if someone does too much of a good thing, it results “in a dopamine fuck up. And you’re kinda screwed up for life.” Very true, and insightful fact of the current human condition.
Stan asks what this all means. “I can get addicted to everything so I can’t enjoy anything?” Satan replies, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what it means.” “The addict people said something about me filling a hole,” Stan says. “Well who’s not filling a fucking hole, right?” Satan asks.
It’s rare that there’s so much explaining in one episode, but the writers are using it to try and teach their audience something. They want them to learn, whereas most entertainment is just pure, stupid entertainment, another reason to love South Park. Depending on who you are, you may like this or you may not. The entire episode is very educational, insightful to humans and addiction, and also entertaining and comical.
You would think all the explaining is done, but Satan goes on to say that he’s going to talk about DNA next, and they do! Satan tells Stan that the genes he inherited from his dad make it hard for him with dopamine regulation, the reason why he needs to watch out for addictive stuff. He states the game is a blatant Skinner Box manipulation, referencing operant conditioning in psychology, and that temptation has to be nuanced, not blatant.
All the need for detailed explanations on how freemium gaming and addictions works in itself is hilarious! Phillip may even address the audience’s concerns about all of the explanations when he exclaims from all the Minister’s explaining, “Oh, god, he just doesn’t stop!” You might be saying the same about this review, but it accurately reflects the nature of the episode.
“There’s something very wrong knowingly making [freemium games] appeal to human weaknesses!” Phillip shouts at the Minister who argues that only a small percentage pay for freemium games. “It’s all aboot finding the heaviest users and extracting the most amount of cash from them,” The Minister responds. Behind him is a whiteboard that shows, “Profit = 1% Gamers.”
The Minister continues to explain the whole profit process: “Here is a fact—80% of alcohol sales are paid for by alcoholics… They don’t care that 10% are going to get addicted, they’re counting on it!… Using slot machine tactics, freemium games are able to make millions off an even smaller percentage of mobile gamers… With every button they click, we get feedback on how to shove this shit right down their throats.” And then he transforms into the Canadian Devil.
Long story short, Satan possesses Stan to fight the Canadian Devil in an epic, fiery battle. Satan wins. More importantly, the battle represents Stan overcoming the demon of temptation that’s inside of him by confronting it and defeating the devil.
The episode ends with an insightful speech from the Canadian Prince: “We all have learned a tragic lesson together that, though many sins are out there, when you get involved with freemium gaming, you are making a deal with the Canadian Devil.” In the final scene, Stan, his grandpa, and his father (representing the male side of the family that has inherited the poor dopamine regulation gene) are at a table playing a board game to replace their other addictions. “You guys want to put some money on it?” the father asks, to which Stan hits his head off the table.
A very educational, and thorough explanative episode, but something most wouldn’t get everything out of it that the writers intended unless through an analysis of the episode, or from reading a review like this.
This is one of South Park’s greatest episodes of the season, and it shows that the writers are above-and-beyond the top of their game. A must-watch episode.
Well, I hope you learned a thing or two… or ten… or fifty… or a hundred. If not, that’s your own damn fault.
Throughout this season, South Park has used at least five or more episodes to address gaming, because these issues are that big in our culture right now.