In-game purchases, or microtransactions, are a controversial enough topic at the best of times, but when a parent receives an unexpected bill for thousands of pounds it can be an unsettling and emotional time. This morning on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast, “Sue” was interviewed after her son spent £4000 on FIFA 14 Ultimate Team Player Packs.
The program is available here (in the UK) until 04-Mar-2014; the piece in question is to be found at 1:37:49.
Sue was aggrieved because she felt that her son was “sucked into buying them by gaming companies who don’t care about the consequences”, as 5 Live Breakfast so eloquently put it. Is it really the case that publishers are preying on our children’s naivety when it comes to online transactions, or is it parents that need to improve their understanding of how the system works?
Sue claims that despite her son being 13 years old, he was caught up in the excitement of the game and that buying the additional content is too easy.
“All they have to do is just press a button to keep buying what they want to buy”… “It takes a second to press the button and they’ve spent £10, £20, £50 pounds, and they do not have the understanding of what they are doing.”
She strongly believes that children and teens can’t see the consequences of what they’re doing and blames the games companies and their lack of safeguards:
“There should be more controls in place to ensure that the cardholder or the adult is aware what’s happening”
Clearly there is something to this; in January 2014, Apple settled with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), rather than take on a “long legal fight” and agreed to refund nearly £20m to the parents in the US of children who made purchases without their consent. The case wasn’t simply about in-app purchases; the FTC alleged that Apple failed to inform parents that by entering a password they were approving a single in-app purchase and 15 minutes of additional unlimited purchases without further consent. It also said that Apple would often present a password prompt explaining that this would finalise any purchase made in the app. Apple was in fact already in the process of refunding many of these purchases prior to the FTC intervention; Apple CEO Tim Cook said:
“Last year, we set out to refund any in-app purchase which may have been made without a parent’s permission. We wanted to reach every customer who might have been affected, so we sent emails to 28 million App Store customers – anyone who had made an in-app purchase in a game designed for kids. When some emails bounced, we mailed the parents postcards. In all, we received 37,000 claims and we will be reimbursing each one as promised.”
So parents could put their password in to download a free game for their kids to play and not realise that for 15 minutes, their child could make in-game purchases. With many free games having large transactions, such as £69.99 for a Boatload of Donuts in The Simpsons: Tapped Out, it’s easy to see how thousands of pounds can be racked up by young kids who want to unlock their favourite characters now! Since then Apple has created additional steps in the purchasing process, such as adding a confirmation prompt confirming the cost of the proposed in-game transaction and giving you an opportunity to cancel. They have also enabled users to remove the 15 minute window where purchases are allowed following password input, meaning users have to input their password for all transactions.
Apple did this because they, like other games companies, are aware of the damage they do to their brands by allowing people to make unintentional purchases. Ultimate Team has made EA 23m pound since December and they expect digital sales to reach £60m by the end of March. As such, the Industry strongly supports a system where payment is required at every single purchase according to TIGA (The Independent Games Developers Association). Most of these measures already exist on consoles such the Xbox and Playstation. When a purchase is made the respective storefront pops up and users have to confirm the purchase and what funding is available; often meaning a credit card linked to the account the child is using, belonging to whichever adult set-up the account.
So there are controls in place and whilst it might be possible for a young child to mindlessly click through them, two points persist: Firstly, if your child is too young to understand they are making a purchase when prompted by the console, they shouldn’t be playing it unsupervised. Secondly, Sue’s son was 13 and in the UK the age of criminal responsibility is 10. We’ve tried and convicted 11 year olds for murder, so the fact the he didn’t understand the consequences doesn’t wash with me. More realistic is that he didn’t care in the moment; Sue herself states:
“He knew that he had been spending money when he shouldn’t, but he had no idea of the consequences and the amount of money involved”.
Now I’m not saying that it was done with malicious intent. There is a lot of peer pressure on kids these days, not just from immediate friends but from the internet too. Vincent Scheurer from TIGA defended the industry and described the player packs, which are a digital equivalent to Panini stickers or Pokémon cards, as an internet phenomenon saying “the craze here is outside of the game”. He’s not wrong, there are hundreds of videos on YouTube of pack openings and many of these have hundreds of thousands of views.
5 Live summed it up brilliantly, when we purchased Panini stickers and Pokémon cards we had to go to the Newsagent and do it with “real money” without half the world watching us open the packs. Could the disconnect of digital dough and the addictive anticipation of opening the packs drive people to do silly things? Sue’s son spent over a thousand pounds within 24 hours on one occasion and she likened the player packs to gambling; not a bad analogy if there’s the thrill of opening the pack, but no guarantee that you’ll receive good cards. People do irrational things when they experience these intense emotions, let alone teenagers whose hormones are already imbalanced enough. So as parents (to be in my case), we need to make it harder for these things to happen and bear the responsibility for our children’s wellbeing instead of simply blaming the games companies.
So what should we do? Take the time to understand any devices you let your kids use fully, even if you don’t intend to use it yourself. Take special care to learn how the parental controls work, as these will allow you to restrict unsavoury content and unwanted purchases. Make sure that you have appropriate accounts for children under the age of 18; on the Xbox this is done by adding a family member and specifying their age, on the Playstation you can add a sub-account. If you do allow them to use your account, remove the credit card information so that purchases can only be made in the presence of an adult by following the instructions here for Xbox, Playstation, Google Play Store and Apple devices. It’s worth noting on Apple devices that if you do link your accounts to your child’s iPad or iPad Touch for example, it’s possible that they could receive iMessages or FaceTime calls intended for you; be sure to disallow these and other features you don’t want them using. Finally don’t give your kids the passwords or passcodes and if you think they know them, change them. They might be your little angels, but they can be devious things and it’s better to be safe than £4000 in debt.