Kids Reveal The Real Flaws Of Free-To-Play Games

If a certain system can be used to trick children into spending thousands of dollars, then it's probably not a very ethical system.

I won't stand here and tell you that microtransactions are the devil. I won't even call them a necessary evil. "Evil" is too strong a word. Cliff Bleszinski did a good job of defending them here yesterday. But the freemium model is still a deeply flawed system, as evidenced by the five-year-old who (more or less accidentally) spent $US2500 of his parents' money in the free-to-play game Zombies vs Ninja this week. He's not the only one, either — there are so many similar cases that this week Apple had to settle a class-action suit brought by distraught and disgruntled parents who felt their kids had been exploited.

(Apple did so by doling out $US5 iTunes credits, which is a little like saying, "Sorry the apps in our store exploited your children for money, but here, go buy some more apps." That's besides the point, though.)

Are lax parents who give their kids their iTunes passwords to blame? I don't think so.

Take the case of a friend of mine. When he was younger (think high school freshman) his impulse control wasn't quite what it is today. As a result he wound up charging hundreds of dollars to his parents' credit card in one free-to-play game or another. You'd think a 14-year-old could be trusted with that sort of power — I carried around a credit card for emergencies at that age — and at that point you can't plead ignorance. There are typically no refunds for microtransactions, and his parents had to swallow that bill.

What I'm saying is that certain games are designed in a way that I consider to be exploitative. They draw you in, and before you know it you've amassed a massive bill full of just-one-more transactions.

My girlfriend is fixated on Candy Crush Saga, along with many, many other people. It's a match-three game like Bejeweled with varying goals that change from level to level. I see no value in it. She swears that once you get to around the 35th puzzle (in the iOS version at least), you've pretty much got to start spending money on it. It even pulls a trick where it pretends to give you a power-up, but asks to charge you when you try to use it.

At that point she quit playing, but when I humored her with a $US10 iTunes gift card, she went right back to it and hasn't stopped since. Wikipedia defines "problem gambling" as "an urge to continuously gamble despite harmful negative consequences or a desire to stop." She hasn't experienced any "negative consequences" as a result of playing Candy Crush, but I know for a fact that not everyone has as much self-control as she does. In what way are these games any different from gambling? Only that unlike gambling, freemium games are available to (and often created for and marketed to) kids.

At its most abusive, the freemium system is designed to exploit people with certain traits, like a lack of self-control. Children exhibit those traits the most, so of course they'll fall for it hard when given the opportunity. And judging by the fact that Zombies vs Ninja appears to be little more than another uninspired imitator attempting to ride the success of Plants vs. Zombies, I'd hazard that its Asia-based developers (their website says the company's address is "Taiwan,Beijing,China") Bakumen, Inc. aren't too worried about taking advantage of people.

I reached out to Bakumen directly for a comment on this subject, but I haven't heard back yet.

Of course, it's ultimately parents' job to police the technology they let their kids use. You can even argue that blaming app-makers for unwanted spending sprees is like blaming game developers for making violent games that somehow fall into the hands of children. Shouldn't we leave poor app creators alone? All they've done is create a system meant for adults to use at their own discretion. It's not their fault if kids get ahold of it.

But that doesn't account for the reasoning-aged players who do serious harm to themselves and their families by being sucked into the free-to-play spiral, or even for the presence of microtransactions in kids' games at all.

The "old" game design model rewarded skilled players with progression; free-to-play games with abusive microtransactions replace the time investment required to develop skill in traditional games with a simple monetary value. The problem isn't the kids, or even their too-lax parents; it's the designers perpetrating this system.

I know if I had a kid or two and the same had happened to me, a $US5 iTunes credit wouldn't cut it. Of course, I wouldn't give my kids the password to my App Store account either, but hey. Not everyone knows better.

Photo: [ollyy]/Shutterstock


    How is that a flaw with Free-To-Play? I'd say it was more a flaw with the parents leaving their CC details on a device where their child could get to it.

      As far as I know (it may have changed in the last two years), iProducts can't connect to the iTunes store at all unless you store your credit card details on the device.

        I can access the iTunes Store on my iPhone and use it regularly and I don't even own a credit card.

          it must have changed at some point then. I've a 4s era phone and I couldn't even register it without giving them my credit card details. This annoyed the hell out of me as I had no intention of spending any money on or in apps.

            I have a 4S too, no credit card is attached to my account... That's weird.

              Maybe it's something on the carrier end rather than manufacturer?

                As of November last year there are instructions on creating an Apple ID without a credit card: Don't know if this existed before.

                You can also remove your credit card details from your account. Of course you then have to enter your credit card for each purchase after that.

            There's a work around, google "iTunes account without credit card"

            It's what I did, before I got a debit card.

            You have to have a credit card to create a iTunes account to verify age, it can be removed after you create a account

        You are correct. Even with prepaid credit on your account, iTunes won't accept any purchase unless you enter or update your credit card info. Seems legit?

        Last edited 03/03/13 3:20 pm

      A lot of the shadier games are/were designed such that it was difficult to tell when you were actually being charged for items because they know children will be playing them. Given a child's naivety, they just see "Tap here to get cool stuff" and Mum and Dad end up with a big bill and the game developer's CEOs do high-fives at scamming a child yet again.

      It was also partially Apple's fault at first (going back to the origin of the original law suit) because they had a long expiry on the password entry to access the credit card. This meant that you could enter your password to permit a purchase at one point but then have your child freely making purchases at a later point because the authorisation was still valid without your knowing it. This was fixed by Apple afterthe law suit came about by shortening the window in which you needed to re-authorise purchases.

    So you're trying to blame the apps, when it's the people who make the choice to spend the money, or the parents who don't do the research into what their kid is playing or how they can prevent them from buying things with real money?

    Hey, while we're at it, lets blame the video games industry for making violent games that kids play because their parents don't check the ratings, because obviously it's the developers' fault for making the game in the first place.

    Kids these days.
    In all seriousness, there is something wrong with you if your giving a young person access to that much money. You're really just asking for trouble if you do.
    That said, I do agree the Free to Play model is flawed.

    And if I want to get an apple id for my kids I need to put my credit card details in and then make sure I work everything out so they cant max it out, or add to my debt at all.

    Why cant they just allow for kids accounts that are linked but controlled.

    Apples account system is flawed and allows for this sort of exploitation.

    Which idiot gave a 14 year old a credit card?

    With freemium games being designed to be crazy addictive to kids I think it's definately the fault of the devs/publishers. It's the same as a heroin dealer, no one wants to be a junkie. Microtransactions are the devil.
    *spelling edit

    Last edited 03/03/13 3:34 pm

      No it's not. It's like giving a junkie your bank card and putting them with a dealer. If you want to keep your money, you need to either limit the junkie's (kids) access to the money, or limit their access to the dealer (game).

        Your dealer takes credit cards? :P

          My dealer has a car and will drive me to an ATM if that's what he needs to do.

        this is kinda actually what happened with an ex girlfriend's brother. he kept stealing stuff from the house to sell so he could buy heroin so it got to a point where it was easier to just give him cash knowing exactly what it was for. trying to keep an addict away from a dealer is an exercise in futility. trying to stop a kid from playing these games once they're hooked is just as impossible, my neice a bit of a smurfs junkie (not as bad as any of these cases though). kids find ways around everything no matter how good of a parent you are.

          Delete the app, require a password to download apps, don't tell kid the password.

    This seems like letting a kid loose in a toy store with a credit card and then complaining that the toy store was baiting the kids into making the purchases by having toys kids like. Kids games are made for kids, and they're designed to be appealing to the point where they bug their parents for money to buy more, but that's not unethical. It's a bit of a jerk move putting the parents in a situation where they have to say no but the understanding is there that if your kid spends $5 or $5,000 of the parents money the parents will be involved in that.

    Bottom line, don't trust kids (or teenagers) completely unsupervised with your unlimited credit card. Especially when there are so many alternatives.

    there's a difference between violent video games and freemium apps, violent video-games aren't targeted at children, many freemium games seemingly are.

    sure part of the problem is parents giving their kids access to money, but at the same time, some games are designed specifically to target weak minded people, and children are the weakest minded of them all. and is it really bad parenting to buy your kid a game off the app store and let them borrow your phone for a few minutes a day to play it? hell, if i had a kid I'm sure I'd let them use my xbox to play games every now and then, but there is sensitive information stored on their and they may very well end up spending my money on something, it only takes less then a minute and a lot of online services nowadays require you to leave some sort of card information with them to access their service at all, I really shouldn't be afraid to leave my child alone with my phone for 2 minutes and get slapped with a thousand dollar bill.

      What if they eat the data cap downloading everything they can find or call China? Has Apple made randomly dialing too enticing to toddlers and cats alike?
      I'm not going to suggest that you have to watch what your children do 24-7, aside from being impractical it's just as crazy as letting them do whatever they want, but you have to recognise that if you buy a pool it needs a fence, if you have cleaning supplies that are poisonous you put them up out of reach or in a locked area, and if you hand them your phone you're handing them everything that's unlocked on that phone.
      They can delete your contacts, create an alert every 5 minutes for the rest of time, look up freaky, freaky porn. If you can't control what they do on the phone, which is highly likely, then you've got to just accept that you can't let them play with your phone anymore than you can let them play with your car.

    Blame the parents (for all of the above).
    Having said that, I also believe the following holds some weight.
    These incidents are almost always the fault of an uninformed adult. Anybody here reading these articles would likely know better but chances are "middle aged mum" and "aging tradesman" don't know the specifics of what goes on. They might think they are just buying a game for their nephew or helping out a niece because she asked for a few dollars so she could buy a random pet on but their details remain in the system and those people are oblivious to that fact.
    The child will then click "buy" everytime the game asks them because they don't know any different, they don't realise that it is costing someone money because that is not how they think. They rationale "If I press this button, I get stuff" not "If I press this button I am costing someone $20" and the person who originally funded the purchase which made subsequent purchases possible, knows no better.

    There should be more transparency in what exactly an online purchase entails especially with regards to whether those details can be used without confirmation after the first use.
    There should also always be an option to prevent details being saved into the system.

    There should also be more education available to parents of children with regards to internet purchases.

    It is still the parents fault and always will be as children don't think that maliciously (most of the time) to rip their parents off for $2500.

    I don't understand this. As a parent of three children I give my kids the tablet PCs, phones, laptops all the time and have not once incurred cost. It's completely the parents fault if they get a bill for $2,500. If the parents are uneducated and are using these devices then hand them over to the child, what do they think is going to happen?

    If you don't want them to spend money put a kid safe application on that allows them to interact with websites and games in a non-bank account breaking way.

    And so the debate continues about bubble wrapping the majority for the sake of the lazy minority or let natural selection take its toll. Why are people not taking ownership of their choices.
    "I'll click on this button. Oh look I'm bankrupt. The developer made me click on that button, I'm going to sue." Person sues, wins and spends money on more app purchases.

    While I agree that handing your kid your unlocked phone is asking for trouble I still see these companies as unethical when they're hiring behavioural psychologists specifically to make their games more addictive.

    Last edited 03/03/13 6:19 pm

      Companies hire consultants for everything to get a profitable edge - colours to encourage hunger in restaurant customers, placement of products in supermarkets to encourage impulse buys. I think it's a bit much to say it's unethical when the onus of protection and control is and should be on the parent. The company does this on the assumption that the tempted player is ultimately responsible or under the supervision of someone responsible.

        Yes but mostly these are companies that are actually providing goods or services at least, not pixels on a screen. I think there is a difference ethically in using colours to encourage hunger in a consumer and creating habitual spending patterns within a game. And just because the responsibility of the child is on the parent how does the company not have any responsibility for creating the environment to begin with?

        Last edited 03/03/13 9:44 pm

    I think the psychology of these games is this -

    Kid: Hey, mum, can I play Game X?
    Mum: How much?
    Kid: Free.
    Mum: OK!
    [Next day]
    Kid: Hey mum, can I buy 200 Smurf Berries?

    And once they've invested time into the game, they don't want to play anything else, free or not.

      And that's the point where the word NO comes in, a word far too many self-absorbed parents are nowhere near familiar enough with. I have 2 kids 6 & 10 both have iPods and PC access, the first thing both were taught was that buying anything without permission meant losing the iPod. They have their own credit on account (bought with pocket money and xmas gifts) but they must get us to approve the purchase by entering the pin, this way we get the chance to intervene on inappropriate spending, or at least discuss it with them.

      So far, no issues.

    I think spending real money inside any game is retarded.

    Does iOS or Android have a way to lock out purchases? Because I feel that is something that should exist. Can I download an App then turn off purchases with a password? Because if I can't than perhaps Apple and Google are at fault here. I know I can set a password on my 360, PS3 etc to prevent my kids playing my MA15+ and R18+ games. So even if they find the games they need to know the password.

    I suppose my first lessons in Video games and money management came from the arcades. If I got 60c (3 games in the mid eighties) and I spent it all on a game I hated my Mother would have told me I should have put one coin in at a time. No refunds, no take backs. The difference was I had my 3 coins in hand I saw each coin disappear into the machine to play I knew what was happening. Now days money is digital you don't see it disappear they put up methods of obscuring how much money you spend there.

    As for the comparison between In App Purchases (IAP) and gambling, people who gamble expect to win, they have systems, techniques etc. Your average slot machine takes $1 minimum but bets in 1c increments. But you don't play a single line you play 20 lines and you always get back something even if it's only 1c. So your not losing and your big win is just around the corner. Gambling is a problem that effects few people, but those people have their lives utterly ruined.

      It's called not saving your password/purchasing information. That is what I do and it works wonders. It even helps you by making you think hard about the impulse buy you are about to make. It makes you really think about what you are purchasing when your kid comes to you looking to buy something.

      I never rely on credit cards. I give my kids one iTunes card a month and if that money is gone, it is gone till next month and no amount of whining will change that. I'd like to think that I've instilled some form of monetary awareness in them.

      Certainly on IOS you can go into settings on the device and disable all IAP, and password protect the ability to re-enable it.
      With it on, if you are in a game with IAP and click on a purchase, you get an error that IAP is disabled. Unless it's possible for developers to go around this that I'm not aware of, that should do it.

    The only people to blame here are the parents, no one else.
    As a fellow gamer, I am disappointed in you Mike. Have we not as a collective been fighting for the R rating? For the right to make our own decisions with what games we play? We would say, "It's the parents fault if the kids play violent video games, not the games or the companies." Is it not double standards to expect that then say companies should be held responsible for this? That is hypocrisy at its finest there. For shame.
    People really need to start taking responsibility for their own actions and their own children instead of passing the buck. It's idiotic thinking like this that takes away our rights, stops us having things like the R rating here in Australia, because instead of us being responsible for our own actions, we want the government/ developers/companies to do it for us. Grow up people

    If I switch off IAP (which i do to prevent the kids spending up) it should switch off any mention of said in app purchases within the app. I dont want the button for them to work, or even display. Ill happily do some of these extra IAP to add functionality to a good base game or app, but having them constanty stuffed down my thoat in a away that hinders the usability of an app, like having to scroll though all the stuff I havent purchased to get to the stuff I have just makes me annoyed and prompts me to avoiad these kinds of 'half finished' sorry excuses for software.

    The problem is not the in IAP themselves, but the overarching implementation by apple and the ip owners who are riding an unregulated wave.

    Last edited 04/03/13 10:48 am

    This seems like an age old argument with a new face. No-one likes to take accountability for their problems. How many companies use less than honest tactics to swindle people into purchases? How many contracts have that oh-so-fine print that means the deal is not as great as it first sounded?

    There will always be a scumbag company who will try to take advantage of the Average-Joe consumer, and they will always get someone. You cannot blame the many for the faults of the few. Not every developer designing free-to-play is out there to steal from or trick people, but they would all like to make some money out of the games they spend so much time creating for pleasure.

    Articles like this are useful for educating adults in the dangers of giving heir children these sorts of devices, but don't turn it into a mob-chase. The best any developer should do is to make it obvious that money will be taken in certain purchase areas, like the way Ski Safari does. They warn you that a certain store will credit from your card, and then proceed to inform you of how you can turn IAP off in your settings to prevent unwanted spending also. The rest is up to the self control of the individual (or the parent).

    So you start by saying:
    "Are lax parents who give their kids their iTunes passwords to blame? I don’t think so."

    Really? Because when i linked my bank account up to my Apple ID it seemed pretty clear that i was going to be responsible for purchases made on my account.

    Now i'm not the smartest person in the world but doesn't giving your child access to your credit card information held in your account mean you are exactly the person to "blame" for the consequences thereof.

    You as a parent have the duty to make sure your children cannot do that and cannot access that, there are ways to set up Apple ID's without linking them to bank accounts or credit cards, but above that, it is just so wrong that you want to sit there and blame the children for something they cant control and not the parent's who could have put in a little bit of research and not just been too "lax" and given up at the first hint of defiance then try to blame the system when they rack up a massive bill using your sensitive data.
    No get stuffed, with that logic when your child ask's for some money for the movie's and you give him your credit card and your pin number it's the credit cards fault if your son over spends. No it is your fault for not getting the money out yourself and giving it to him, instead you relied on faith and it got you nowhere. Suck it up and stop blaming the kids and the system for your own mistakes that you unarguably caused.

    Meh, it's not like i can take you seriously anyway, by the end of the article you became completely hypocritical of your own issue here:
    "Of course, it’s ultimately parents’ job to police the technology they let their kids use."

    So why don't you pick a stance? regardless of whether or not there is or isnt a way for children to waste money, isnt it only the parents who are responsible for how their account gets used.
    Failing of course that a child might steal all this information to set it up without the parents knowledge in which case it would indeed be the childs fault.

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