Popular YouTuber Michael “Mtashed” Tash went viral after dropping $2,000 to buy a character named Klee in free-to-play game Genshin Impact. Not long after spending those thousands of dollars, the Canadian YouTuber uploaded another video stating he regretted all of it and, adding salt to the wound, he now believed the character “sucks.”
The thumbnails, while provocative when lined up to one another, didn’t tell the whole story. You can’t get the entire tale from watching the videos now, either, because he’s deleted some of them following backlash from viewers. Speaking to Polygon over Discord, Tash says that the money had all come from his YouTube earnings from covering Genshin Impact. It was, in other words, a business expense that did not reflect on how deeply the gacha game cut into his wallet.
But this series of events sparked heated discourse over Genshin Impact, its business practices, and how exploitative a gacha game can be when there’s less than a 1% chance of winning any given powerful character. In follow-up videos, Tash claimed that viewers warned him that he may have a gambling addiction, though he denied to Polygon that this was the case. Instead, Tash says he felt the game was “scummy” from the start, though he failed to reconcile during our conversation why he chose to move forward with the game anyway.
A different YouTuber, Tectone, responded with an explanation as to why he chooses to “whale” in gacha games by spending huge amounts of money in them. As he told it, he once did have a problem spending all his money in gacha games, at one point allegedly even going homeless because of it. But when he discovered YouTubers who spent thousands of dollars in gacha games, his approach allegedly changed.
“The curiosity that drove me to spend so much money on these games was absolutely null and void. Because I would see them spend all this money, and I would see how angry they would be,” Tectone says during the video.
Tectone went on to say that he now showcases big spending in gacha games on his Twitch account because, in his mind, it can help viewers make informed decisions about how to spend their own cash. In the best case scenario he posed, a viewer may walk away from a game altogether — or at least think twice about what they’re doing.
“I think it’s a lot easier for people to resist the urge to summon when they can see how damaging it is, and how pointless it is,” Tectone says. “I think, if someone sees that it took me [$600 or] $700 to get a Klee, they’re not going to think, ‘oh, $600 or $700? I’ll go drop that right now.’ I think, what they’ll think is, ‘why the fuck is this dumbass spending this much money on fucking doody anime girl?’ Right? Because that’s how it worked for me.”
Is Tectone truly as free from the perils of gacha games when he is still spending vast amounts of money “for” his audience? Does watching someone spend hours opening randomized digital boxes over and over again actually deter people from spending? Part of what hooks people on slot machines is the dazzling music and animations that happen during a win, which is exactly what a viewer would see when a YouTuber opens randomized rewards, known as loot boxes or Wishes, Genshin Impact’s version of a loot box.
Companies also spend top dollar trying to get influencers to try their product, in part because people trust them, but also because YouTubers can drive purchases. This is why games like Fortnite add influencer skins: The hope is that those audiences love the entertainer so much, they will be mobilized to spend. While Polygon spoke to one fan who claims to watch YouTubers spend money in games to feel a sense of superiority to them, it seems unlikely that every viewer can say the same thing. If someone is at risk for gambling addiction to begin with, it may not be so cut and dry as Tectone claims. (The YouTuber did not respond to a request for comment.)
“The most compelling kinds of gambling structures have to do with different rhythms of payoffs,” says game designer, professor, and poker aficionado Frank Lantz, in reference to an idea in psychology that he referred to as “intermittent rewards.” Over the phone, he noted that the more randomized or unpredictable a reward is, the more it will help reinforce the behavior that caused it. Intermittent rewards are also at play when gamblers try things like slot machines.
While Genshin Impact makes the odds of getting any specific character or weapon visible with a press of in-game button, there is no telling what or who you might get at any given point in time. That’s part of the appeal. A lot of time, you’ll get garbage when you make a Wish. But sometimes — not very often, but sometimes — you’ll get something good. Excitement and possibility are built into the premise.
“That’s what makes the whole thing work,” Lantz says. “And every gacha is built on the same basic principle of this intermittent reward. These things would not work if you could look at a schedule and say, ‘Oh, I need to beat this many monsters. And then I’m going to get this particular thing at the end.’” The more predictable a reward, in other words, the less exciting it will feel.
In the case of Genshin Impact, there is ambient pressure, within the game and outside of it, to want new characters even if they aren’t necessary to progress within the game.
They’re new. They’re cool. Everyone is talking about them. They’re strong. You don’t have them yet. To play Genshin Impact at all is to constantly resist the urge to open up its Wish menu and splurge. While it’s possible to make a Wish without ever spending a dime, it requires a lot of time and patience to accrue enough resources to make a meaningful number of Wishes.
Currently, Genshin Impact is running a promotion where it rewards players for inviting friends to try the game out. As a crossover game in the gacha genre, it’s clear that Genshin Impact is bringing a huge number of people who have never played something like this before into the fold. Many of these folks are learning how to balance playing a game that is genuinely fun with the lurking pressure to try their luck with the gacha gods. All the while, the big influencers who make a living off the game see it as a duty to show off the latest and greatest thing the game has to offer.
And the more they spend, the better. On YouTube, creators like MrBeast have made a name for themselves by spending vast amounts of money on videos, something that has trickled into the gaming space in the form of mass loot box spending. As YouTube expert Chris Stokel-Walker explained to Polygon in a Skype call, spending big bucks help get views, even if it’s for a digital item. Actually, digital items might be more lucrative as a status symbol right now, given that you can still show them off while social distancing.
“In order to get into those upper echelons [of views], you need to stand out,” he says. “And the way that you stand out is ostentatiousness.” Stokel-Walker explained that, on YouTube, there is a culture of always trying to outdo the last person, and spending money is an easy way to do that. Telling people that you dropped $2,000 on a digital anime girl commands attention — and then telling people you regret doing that maintains it.
Sure enough, Tash told Polygon that, since starting to cover Genshin Impact, his channel has been doing better than ever.
“My best month ever before was 7.6 million views,” he says. “I am at 20M this month. Last YEAR I got 114k subs. I got 140k this month.”
The Genshin Impact chronicle took yet another turn for Tash in late October, when the YouTuber announced to his viewers that he was giving up his old account — now worth several thousands of dollars — and instead starting fresh. This time, he claimed, he would spend zero money. The choice was driven, he says, by worry that he was promoting a potentially dangerous product.
“If any sane person was spending this kind of money on a video game, or a video game weapon, or a video game passive, I would honestly say, unless you have an immense amount of disposable income, to look at yourself at the mirror and potentially get help,” he says during the video. “There are very addictive practices in this game, and I’m sorry if I ever baited you into Wishing yourself. I do feel guilty about that, I’ve had a tough time sleeping. I’m not kidding you guys. I regret covering this game.”
When he explains his decision to pivot his spending habits in the game, he starts to tear up.
“I’m worried that me promoting this game and showing off these weapons have baited other people into spending money on this game and maybe potentially hurting them financially,” he says. He continues to say he won’t spend more money on it as a form of “protest.”
While discussing responses to his videos to Polygon, Tash says he saw Tectone’s explanation of why he was going to continue spending enormous amounts of money in-game as a calculated move.
“Like myself, he is using it to further his brand and build that audience,” Tash says. When pressed as to how it was possible to continue covering a game while also believing it had the power to tempt people into ruin, he acknowledged that some people see his latest turn as a publicity stunt. He also noted that during his initial Genshin Impact videos, he warned people that the gacha system was “SUPER bad.”
This belief was reinforced when a few dozen fans reached out to Tash, expressing worry over how much they were spending. One viewer who claimed they were in university reached out, saying they had spent $500 on Genshin Impact instead of using that money for food or books. Polygon could not verify this particular anecdote, but there are many like it when it comes to gacha games.
“Some people just want to assume the worst of people,” he says of onlookers who might doubt his motivations in continuing to cover a hot game that is breaking records for his viewership, while also paradoxically saying he is taking a stand against it. He acknowledged that some folks found him “clickbaity,” and while he found these assessments to be unfair compared to what he actually says in his videos, he isn’t letting detractors stop him.
“But for every vocal hater there are thousands of silent supporters,” Tash says. “Not everyone likes every movie or sport. They don’t have to like me.”
As his views and subscriptions surge, the tenor of Tash’s videos has changed — where before he brute-forced his way forward by spending money, now he has to take things at a different pace.
“Every upgrade and decision has a lot more weight now, so people are invested and excited about it ... I am having way more fun,” he says.
While spending real money in Genshin Impact might be off the table for Tash, Wishes earned through currencies earned through the game are not — meaning that, in a way, Tash will continue to gamble within the game. The only difference now is that he is vowing to keep videos or livestreams of him trying the figurative video game slot machine off his permanent channel. But since Tash still be showing Genshin Impact off in some way, viewers who enjoy his videos might still pick up the game and end up gambling anyway.
There’s some cognitive dissonance to the whole scenario that should make viewers at least a little skeptical, especially on a social media platform as performative as YouTube. While Tash poses his embrace of free-to-play as a major move that rebels against the game, his spending was never in danger of redlining his bank account. The thousands he spent so far had all come from Genshin Impact YouTube views in the first place.
The potential issue is that, as YouTubers, both Tash and Tectone can develop parasocial relationships with their viewers, especially after making such emotional appeals in recent videos. Viewers eager to see the YouTubers as their friend might then feel that these approaches reflect only concern for audiences as people, rather than also seeing them as business and branding decisions as well.
For game developers like Lantz, it’s important not to demonize the genre as a whole, the people who make them, or the people who play them. There have to be ways, he says, for us to indulge in, talk about, and critique games or systems which have the capability of stinging us — that may very well be the appeal of some experiences, like gacha games — while also being informed and measured about it.
“It’s kind of like one of the deepest, hardest, most interesting problems in humanity,” Lantz says of our willingness to gamble both inside and outside of video games. “All of us are like Odysseus, who ties himself to the mast because he wants to hear the siren’s song.”