Right before the premiere of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Electronic Arts (EA) released the perfect moneymaking video game — Star Wars: Battlefront II. It was a sequel to the lucrative Star Wars: Battlefront and an experience that lets you play as blockbuster heroes like Rey and Kylo Ren. A surefire success. Except, it wasn’t.
In its first three months, Battlefront II sold about three million units fewer than EA’s expectations. Customers boycotted the release in droves, and industry reviews eviscerated the product. How did EA mess up such an easy cash grab? Simple. They got greedy and peppered their game with microtransactions.
Microtransactions is a general term for when players can purchase virtual goods inside a video game with real money. While many games have microtransactions for players to unlock purely aesthetic items, Battlefront II took the concept a step further and allowed players with cash to purchase gameplay shortcuts. If you didn’t want to wait to unlock Luke and Leia, all you had to do was shill out an extra 20 dollars. Distressed that this “pay-to-win” game gave wealthier players a competitive advantage, consumers revolted.
Why am I talking about a two year-old video game? Because microtransactions aren’t limited to video games. Yale is steeped in its own web of frustrating charges, making it harder for low income students to compete at the same level as their classmates. As many before me have protested, the student income contribution forces students on financial aid to spend time they could devote to classes working part time jobs. Waiving the $125 “student activities fee” this year entailed sending an email to the financial aid office explaining your need (regardless of if you receive aid or not), a process that used to involve checking a box online. Meanwhile, the university’s elaborate fining system punishes students by issuing monetary fines for minor infractions like turning in a schedule late.
Let’s take a look at how one fee in particular affects students: the $20 fee to drop a class. In 2009, former University Registrar Jill Carlton told the News that this fee was “a processing fee” not meant to “discourage students from dropping a course at all.” While she noted that this fee predated even her tenure as University Registrar, Carlton stated that the money went to handling course schedules, a complicated process that required at least nine keystrokes. For comparison, this article is comprised of 5,956 keystrokes. With over 1,500 course drops that spring, the registrar’s office collected $30,000 dollars off students.
Current University Registrar, Emily Shandley, told me that her office is “in active discussions with the Yale College Dean’s Office about improving how students add and drop courses at the beginning of the term.” Like Carlton, Shandley attributed the fee to “the effort involved in processing changes after shopping period” — without describing that effort — and also added that it was “to enforce registration deadlines.”
For some students, forfeiting that money to the registrar’s office is a small annoyance. For others, subsidizing the registrar’s efforts has tangible financial consequences. Mia Arias Tsang ’21, editor in chief of Broad Recognition, Yale’s only feminist publication, published a digital zine outlining the ways in which Yale, and its financial aid system in particular, burden middle and lower income students. It describes horror stories of misplaced paperwork and unreasonable late fees. Tsang, who described herself as coming from a low-income background but able to afford the drop fee, told me that, to low income students, “that $20 could be two meals over break” when the dining halls aren’t open. She expressed concern that, “if you’re in a financial situation where the fee poses a stress to you and you’re also doing badly in the class, it puts you in a situation where you have to choose one [option] or the other … a decision only low income students have to make.”
These concrete financial concerns create a substantial risk that the drop fee — even if it wasn’t designed to — is discouraging students from leaving classes they cannot keep up with. On the other hand, if it was partially constructed, as Shandley stated, to enforce registration deadlines, then it doesn’t accomplish its job for those students who see $20 as an insignificant amount. Plus, there is already a $50 fine for turning in your schedule late; the additional $20 fee is levied regardless of when you drop the class, so it is unclear what “registration deadlines” Shandley was referring to.
But there’s another concern with the fee — it could be a disincentive for some students to take risks in planning their course schedules. This semester, I am taking a class in the law school as well as three other classes that have a heavy workload. Adding a fifth credit on top of that would put me in a potentially unsustainable position. But in order to enroll in a law school course, I needed approval for undergraduate credit from the registrar’s office, which could not guarantee approval for the course credit before the end of shopping period. This forced me to add a fifth credit I would ultimately drop — coerced to pay the fee — or risk falling behind by taking only three classes if my law school course was not approved. Effectively, the $20 fee served as a surcharge to taking four classes and enrolling in a professional school course. I got lucky; my approval came on the day of the course registration deadline, and I felt comfortable that I could provide that payment without stress if need be, but not everybody is in that position.
When confronted with having to pay more to play their game, EA’s customers refused to play. And something inspiring happened: EA was forced to remove microtransactions in the game to salvage the product. Consumers forced EA to change. At Yale, we are all now playing a pay-to-win game. It’s time we force Yale to change.
Jacob Hutt is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .