In the age of mobile everything, mobile “freemium” games that offer games with in-app purchases are the big thing right now, making them the perfect target for South Park’s searing cultural critique. In the new “Freemium Isn’t Free” episode, the show’s creators presented their 12-steps for beating mobile game addiction with a little help from South Park’s Stan Marsh and Satan. Surprisingly, even Satan hates freemium games and he made it his mission to stop the flood of a terrible mobile game from Canada. In the process, the “science” behind addiction and how mobile games play into it was explained, along with a sharp look at the alcohol industry’s “drink responsibly” campaigns. Put together, it is a story that just might tear apart Canada’s ethical status and the belovedness of its fart-joke prone comedians Terrance and Phillip.
The saga begins when Stan gets hooked on the new Terrance and Phillip mobile game, spending thousands of dollars on micropayments for “Canadough.” While most people think the game is stupid, Stand cannot help but be addicted to its gambling-esque nature, which is exactly what the Canadian Department of Mobile Gaming intended. When Terrance and Phillip take a surprisingly fart-free principled stand against the terrible game, the Minister of Gaming and the Prince of Canada explain how it works.
“Freemium” means “not really” free and no one should care if it sucks because it is free to play. There are five principles that make this supposedly free game a moneymaker: simplicity, compliments, fake currency, a “switcheroo” and the waiting game. It is a simple game to play and it even compliments the user making them feel happier about playing such a stupid game. Then the game offers fake currency which can be “switcheroo-ed” for real currency which allows the user to not have to wait to play the game. Basically, the game is just barely fun, making people want to pay real money to make it more fun. After that explanation, it is impossible not to find all mobile games a little unsettling.
Meanwhile back in South Park, Stan’s dad is pissed at the amount of money his son has been wasting on the game. Even Stan’s friends have to confront him about his addiction to a terribly awful game, but it is impossible to persuade him to quit. He has become one of the few people who are addicted to mobile gaming and make up the majority of its profits. His father theorizes that maybe he got the gene from his grandfather who is addicted to slot machines (all the while ignoring his own alcoholism). Finally, Stan realizes that his addiction is a problem and, as part of South Park‘s 12-step mobile gaming addiction recovery program, he prays to a higher power for help in beating it.
Unexpectedly, Satan shows up to explain the physiology behind addiction and why mobile games are so addicting to people with the predisposition to addiction. After a scientific explanation, Stan shows the devil what he is addicted to. The lord of the underworld recognizes it as the shoddy handiwork of the Canadian Devil and he inhabits Stan’s body in order to go confront “Beelze-boot.” After Satan defeats the Canadian Devil, everything goes back to normal and Canada is a completely “ethical, respected, shitty tundra” again.
This happy ending is hilarious, but the real genius of the episode is in the subtle digs at the alcohol industry. Stan’s father is never seen without an alcoholic beverage in his hand, but he continually denies he is addicted. Even with a wine and beer tasting in which he chugs all the drinks, he does not recognize his addiction. His hypocrisy is not lost on Stan or the viewer. But with the issue of alcoholism already present, the sharp dig at the “Drink Responsibly” campaigns carries more weight. When Terrance and Phillip object to taking advantage of gaming addiction, the Minister (who is really Canadian Satan) starts a campaign to teach people moderation, just like the alcohol industry. But the associations between sex, fun and alcohol inherent in the sample ad really pinpoint the conflict of interest the alcohol industry has in running moderation campaigns. Freemium games may be the story’s vehicle, but the real targets are the industries that use addiction to make a profit. The alcohol industry may get the brunt of the jokes, but it could just as easily be applied to the tobacco industry or any other kind.
South Park has a record of good cultural critique and the “Freemium Isn’t Free” episode is no exception. The ridiculousness that viewers expect from the show is still there and beloved characters like Satan still make appearances. But the subtleness of the criticism is no more. South Park is taking on industries and issues that few other shows will tackle and it is doing it in perhaps the most effective way possible. Unlike other adult cartoons, it has not lost its aim at informing and challenging people’s ideas. South Park’s 12-steps to beating mobile gaming addiction is hilarious, but it is also serious in showing people the hypocrisy inherent in both gaming and the alcohol industries.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury