This is probably the "Pay to Win's" little brother. So what are cosmetics, it is the way of the game making money by selling cosmetic items for the game like hats for the player to wear. This is different to "Pay to Win" in the sense that someone who purchases it, does not gain an advantage in the game, so sounds good at first, but at second thought, then why does it work anyway? I mean if cosmetics supposedly don't do anything for you in the game, then why people buy them? This question bothered me for quite a while now and I want to elaborate why I think it is bad game design.
Why do people buy Pay to Win? This is obvious, they want to have an advantage, want to show that they are better than others.
Why do people buy Cosmetics? Because they want to show that they are better than others, they want something that makes them special, distinguishes them from others.
I think Pay to Win and Cosmetics are basically the same, the difference is just that Cosmetics are not directly game breaking, only indirectly. Pay to Win gives you a real unfair advantage against others, whereas Cosmetics give you a perceived advantage against others. So it is both a competition beyond the game itself, like players compete on a meta level against each other. The game itself degrades into the platform where you can show your meta game, like show off your costumes etc. So the game is no longer just about the game alone, but about something else.
What I also think is wrong with Cosmetics is the element of deception, I mean subconsciously a user thinks they gain an advantage by purchasing it, otherwise they would not pay for it. I don't think anyone when seeing cosmetic items for purchase thinking to themselves "Oh those things are totally useless, I need to pay lots of money to buy them" That is kind of irrational so I think an element of deception is present, which I see not as a good practice.
The deceptive nature then hooks into other elements that are also bad, for example Cosmetic items are often tied to loot box system, which then is tied to a gambling system, both topics I probably will have to write an extra article about, although it is hard to distinguish those, since they are often so intertwined.
So I don't even know what is more immoral, letting people pay for real advantages or letting them pay for useless things? The good part is, Cosmetics don't directly ruin the game for others, as most people do not buy those things anyway, but otherwise it is still immoral since most of the revenue comes from what game companies call "whales" which is a tiny percentage like 1% or less, that generates almost all the revenue in microtransactions.
The biggest problem however I think is that I think having Cosmetics makes everything ridiculous. I mean you are playing some kind of war simulator, which is one of the most common games and then people run around with funny hats and rifles that are painted in funny ways. Sometimes I even felt sorry for people who ran around with skins that cost a lot of money. I don't really know how to explain it, I would just say cosmetics are just stupid. When I as a game developer would add Cosmetics for people to buy, I would just feel bad, similar to when selling them Pay to Win. From a developers perspective Skins and Cosmetics are one of the easiest things to produce. Imagine all the work that goes into designing, modeling, unwrapping, texturing, animating and implementing a weapon in a game vs just spraying the texture over or changing the color and then selling that as a supposedly expensive feature. Anyone who knows how to operate a paint program can make skins, it may even be funny in some cases allowing people to do that, but why having people pay for it? I don't know I think it is just wrong. To me it is just another shady method of making money from people through deception and manipulation.
Some people may argue, that you can get those cosmetic items in the game just by playing it, yes that may be true, but the games are intentionally designed so it is very hard to actually get them or get a significant amount of them or get the good ones. It is the same mechanic as in Pay to Win, they give you a little bit for free, then make the game harder until you pay to make it easier again, in this case you pay to get the cosmetics. I played games before that had cosmetics and I like creating my individual character and showing my individuality, but I see it as part of the game and would not pay for it. For example if you achieve some things in a game and get a cosmetic reward for it, than this is a nice way of showing your progress to others, like having achieved a certain challenge, but just getting something through paying for it, I don't know. Certain expensive skins can even backfire as other players will see "Oh that player is some spoiled rich kid who thinks he is better, let's attack him"
I think there are also psychological effects that are bad in the long term for human society, for example you promote vanity in people through cosmetics in games, similar to how social media turns people into narcissists. I think these problems go together, I still know times where nobody would come to the idea to create a selfie and display their vanity, this is because social media did not exist by then, it is similar with games now, I still know times where nobody would come to the idea to want cosmetics for their video game character to show off. Yes custom characters existed almost as long as video games existed, but mostly there was a fixed amount of different models to chose from, so you get a little bit of individuality and it helped to visually distinguish players in the game also, but everyone had the same options. Some people may argue that they like to spend money on cosmetics just to support the game developers, because the game supposedly is so costly to develop and maintain, since most games with cosmetics are multiplayer. However I know times where you would purchase a multiplayer game for the same price as a single player game and the game developers somehow managed to support the game and keep their servers running for many years after the game was initially released even though they made no more additional money from the customers other than the initial purchase of the game. If the developers really need more support, they could just outsource the costs to the community, which in fact some companies already do, but they also sell Pay to Win, Cosmetics or Premium models and keep all the additional profits for themselves. So in the end it is just about making more money and being greedy, but sadly developers are being forced to adapt those models as well, otherwise they make less money and cannot compete anymore.
Cosmetics seems to be one of those trends that cannot be undone, since as a developer if you integrate one of those trends that help you make extra money, then why not use it? If you don't use it, then you put yourself on a disadvantage vs the competition and in the long run you may even go bankrupt. This is probably because there is no longer such a strict distinction between Pay to Win games and Cosmetics games, buying ingame currency or whatever, because every mechanic lets you gain more money, so why not use as many of them at the same time as possible. I saw games that have Pay to Win, Cosmetics, Purchasable ingame currency, Premium model AND full price initial purchase as well as DLCs.
Finally I would say, yes there are not as many arguments against Cosmetics as there are against Pay to Win, but I think Cosmetics are still morally wrong and I would feel bad selling them knowing how ridiculous this all is, how it manipulates/exploits people and fosters vanity/narcissism.