Thoughts From The Cyberverse: In-App purchases in games for kids

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Throughout the entire time Internet has been around, companies have tried to capitalize on kids. Even before that, there were a lot of companies that offered paid services to kids, such as the 90’s phone hotlines with everything from Action Man/GI Joe to bunnies or sock puppets.  All of these services are readily available for kids with “parent permission”.

Those words are key here.  It’s a blank slate for the companies to get away with charging kids money without being held responsible. Today we have the in-app stores for mobile games or in-game store for console and computer games. There is one key difference though: today the “Parental Permission” part is baked into the Terms Of Service, the wall of text that no kid will ever read or understand, and the credit card no longer needs to be stolen by the kid without permission because of the way mobile apps works.

A smartphone usually needs to be connected to a payment method, such as a credit card, in order to be allowed to download apps even if the app is free. This creates a loophole for companies to develop apps and games with in-app stores that charge real money with no real supervision. Since it is this easy, they need to make sure they have their backs covered, especially if they develop the game with kids in mind. This is where the tiny clause in the even tinier fine print of the Terms of Service comes into play, because there you can read that the owner of the smartphone or tablet must approve the game and any purchase before letting their kids play.

Even with this clause, the way they advertise the game as “free” and the way in-app purchases are being advertised frequently throughout the game, they are in breach of the law in several countries, including United Kingdom. The organization in charge of enforcing this law is the Office of Fair Trade (or OFT for short). OFT let the world know that they had found no less than 15 companies that developed games advertised as games for kids to be in direct violation of the Consumer Rights Act due to the in-app purchases. However, due to the messy business of dragging 15 companies from around the globe into a courtroom in United Kingdom, OFT instead decided to give the companies a slap on the fingers and released a list of 8 things the companies should keep in mind to help them not break the law.

Obviously this did not help, as the list was released in September 2013 and already in December the same year, we saw games with expensive in-app purchases and so called paywalls.  A paywall is a timer in a game that prevents you from getting past certain key points unless you wait a long time or pay for an unlock.

Recently, esteemed company Rovio started putting an in-app store in their popular game series Angry Birds. The games usually cost around 0.99$US and the “boosts” and “energy” you can buy costs around 3-5$US. However, their latest game, a racing game called Angry Birds Go, took it way too far. Here you hit paywalls right away and you are required to have “energy” to complete each level. You are also constantly getting advertisements for the different “carts” and “upgrades” you can buy, some of which costs upwards of 50$US to buy… and that is without the “upgrades.”

Unlike other games, like Star Trek: Trexels that had similar purchases and paywalls, Rovio has always aimed towards kids. Their merchandise is mainly sold in kid sizes and the family-friendly setting has made it the favourite game for kids for several years. This is blatant attempt to get kids to spend their parents’ money without the parents finding out until the bill comes.

With such ridiculous prices, a kid can easily rack up charges of several hundreds of dollars in a manner of minutes, either intentionally or unintentionally. Since Angry Birds Go is also marketed as a free game, kids might not understand that it is real money on the line.

Rovio is not the only company that does this; they are just the company that right now is the worst at it. OFT has not named any of the 15 companies they found to be guilty of breaching the law, but I would not be surprised to see Rovio on that list should it ever be released.

Mobile games are not alone in this either.  Facebook games and other online “time-wasters” (games that you can play for a few minutes on the lunch break) also have these in-game stores. You are constantly bombarded with “I see you’re having trouble, try buying this item from the store.” Even though Facebook requires you to be at least 16 years old to have an account, the creators of the games have no such requirements. All they need is your credit card information, something they fetch directly from Facebook through the Facebook Coin system. Many parents let their kids play games on their Facebook account and some even let them buy a thing or two once in a while, but this enables the kid to rack up the bill in a moment if the parents aren’t vigilant enough. This is blatantly what the creators of these games aim for since that would be their main income source.

It is hard for me to understand why the government organizations around the world don’t take action against these breaches of the law. They have enough evidence, they know where the companies are, they obviously know how to contact them, yet they refuse to take legal action. In the meantime, families get their economy ruined when their kids unknowingly spend a months rent on pixel cars and pickaxes.

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