- Written by Catherine Latham
- Business reporter
Nara Ward says tracking her children’s spending when they play their favorite computer games is a full-time job.
Ms. Ward lives in Barbados with her husband and sons, Finn, 14, and Liv, 12.
When Leif started playing Roblox, he started asking for robux – the game’s currency – which allows players to upgrade their characters or buy virtual items. So his grandparents gave him a $200 (£159) Apple Watch for Christmas.
“It shocked me,” says Ms. Ward, “he had it all in a matter of days.” “After that, I gave him no more than $10 robux a month. He quickly became frustrated and bored with the game.”
Leif has moved on to World of Tanks, which also requires players to upgrade their weapons using PlayStation Credits.
“However, this game does have the option to watch ads for credit,” says Ms. Ward. “He would have done so out of desperation when he had exhausted his monthly playing allowance.”
Mrs. Ward says her youngest son has yet to learn self-control or a sense of money.
“It’s something I have to do constantly.”
Instead of profiting from the initial sale of a video game, many game companies today rely on revenue generated from in-game purchases, or microtransactions.
Purchased content can be purely aesthetic – dance moves, skins or outfits.
Alternatively, in-game purchases can provide a tactical advantage to gameplay – extra lives, character or weapon upgrades – providing a head start on players who have not purchased the additional content.
The global online microtransactions market is expected to grow from $67.94 billion in 2022 to $76.66 billion in 2023.
However, there are signs of a backlash from experts and consumers alike. Also, some companies promise new versions that are free of in-game purchases.
Gaming companies use behavioral psychology to manipulate users into spending, says Professor Sarah Mills, and the relationship between gaming and gambling is becoming “increasingly blurred”, she explains.
Ms. Mills is Professor of Human Geography at Loughborough University. Her research found that gambling techniques make players play longer and spend more money, and drive buybacks.
Vicky Schotbolt, CEO of Parent Zone, an organization that helps parents navigate their children’s digital world, is more specific about how games motivate gamers to part with their money.
By spending players can “avoid the grind” – making an in-game purchase means you avoid hours of monotonous gameplay to advance to another level.
The “pain of fun” is where you risk missing out on something important if you don’t make the purchase.
Meanwhile, “obfuscation technologies,” such as in-game currencies, make it difficult to know how much you’re really spending.
Another tactic is to use “loot boxes”. Players buy a box without knowing what’s inside. They can contain a game-changing element — but often the prize is nothing more than a modest allocation.
“Young people recalled feelings of shame when they thought about how much they had spent trying to get a rare item, even if they were successful,” says Professor Mills.
And while many kids say they don’t like in-game purchases, spending money on micro-transactions has become an expectation.
While spending on gaming has increased, some argue that playing games can benefit young people and that concerns are overblown.
Games as a form of play have been found to relieve stress, help develop cognitive skills and combat loneliness.
As a teenager, Zhenghua Yang, from Colorado, spent two years in the hospital.
“I’ve played a lot of video games. Single-player games made me feel like a hero. Multiplayer games connected me to other people. I made lifelong friends all over the world.”
In 2014, Mr. Yang founded the game company Serenity Forge with the goal of helping others. To date, more than 20 million people have participated in the company’s games.
“We’re broadening people’s horizons,” says Yang.
Serenity Forge doesn’t use microtransactions, but, says Yang, that could change in the future if they find it contributes to “meaningful, emotionally impactful games that challenge your way of thinking.”
Yang says the impact of microtransactions depends on how vulnerable the user is.
“Like a credit card can be dangerous to someone in an inappropriate context, so can microtransactions. However, credit cards can also perform an important function and in-game purchases can be important to a player who is playing their favorite game.”
Sarah Loya’s 14-year-old son Andrew spends almost all his pocket money on games, but, she says, it’s not a problem, and the games make him happy.
“He plays every day, after school and on the weekends. I don’t really see a lot of negative things. He’s a smart kid and knows the difference between reality and fantasy.”
Loya lives in Texas with Andrew and his brother, Rex, 6.
“My bank account is tied to Andrew’s subscription so I’ll see if he bought something without permission, but he always asks me before making a purchase,” says the 43-year-old.
While it can be difficult for parents to keep track of registered emails, passwords, and payment cards across multiple platforms and devices – there are ways you can protect your teen and your bank account.
Child accounts and parental controls can be used to disable purchases or set a spending limit. Parents can set up email notifications to inform about purchases, and use gift cards instead of credit cards.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Yang adds, talk to your child.
“In my experience, the friction stems from a lack of parental presence,” he says. “I now have two kids, and instead of using games as a childcare tool, I make sure I’m present in their lives as they consume media.”
Back in Barbados, Ms. Ward set screen time limits and passcodes to keep Leif games safe.
“The password is required to make any purchases, and if he wants to add money to his account, he has to ask me. Small transactions are annoying but that’s a life lesson.”
- If parents are concerned about a young person suffering from gaming or potential gambling-related harms, please visit Parent Hub website from YGAM (Youth Education Fund for Gamers and Gamblers) for support and resources.
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