Research 3: Bad Games + Bad Children = Good Business? – Report
The OFT carried out research in to the games industry and games that could be considered to appeal to children, even if they were not designed as such, to see how in app purchasing is managed and if any of the methods could be considered misleading and therefore fraudulent.
- A lot of the complaints are quite harrowing, extorting money from children has a massive impact that is felt both by the children and their families.
- The games industry needs to self regulate. Create clearer opportunities for parents to flag up problems and their be a formal complaints procedure.
- Parents feel games have huge positive potential that they are a force for good. However parents behaviour is often quite contradictory, they understand and are generally quite prepared to pay for good digital content and yet restrict their children’s usage to only ‘free to play’ games which is where they become exposed the these ‘sharp’ practices.
During the course of their investigations the OFT collected a large quantity of complaints data from the public as well as actually playing the games themselves (notably without spending any money).
The main bulk of the OFT’s findings was around the direct exhortation of children to buy within games and the simplicity of the purchase. Children are finding it very easy to quickly rack up big bills in these games and are genuinely suffering as a result.
Lynn was keen to bring the voice of the child in to the equation and as a result spoke directly to one of the complainants – a nine year old boy who ran up a £4500 credit card bill during a half term break. This was on a game on a Nexus tablet. He made over over 100 transactions in very short space of time generally not exceeding the £25 mark. His mother didn’t notice until she got her bill through from the credit card company and in the first instance assumed she’d been the victim of fraud. The credit card company confirmed the purchased were made through a game and she worked out that it was her son. His mother felt really confused about who to complain to, she couldn’t find the IP owners she was at a loss as to what to do about it and in the end she complained directly to Google in the US. Her credit card company were prepared to refund her on the basis they felt the payment was fraudulently made. She suffered a marriage break up as a result and yet despite all of this she still quite liked the game, said that she felt it was well made and that it fosters positive skills.
Lynn asked the question ‘Do children understand that they’re making a financial transaction? Was there confusion between in game currency and actual currency?’ In the example given, the boy had asked his mum on previous occasions if his pocket money could be converted to digital money to spend in games. He understood he was making a transaction and when he made that first £25 transaction without asking and the sky didn’t fall in and there were no alarm bells he just kept on doing it. He said that progression would have been too slow or impossible without spending the money. When asked he said he thinks that a fair limit per day would be £40, Lynn believes that this represents a flip point where children don’t understand the value of money in larger amounts, it just doesn’t have the same meaning for them.
Lynn also carried out nine focus groups with 70 children to get a perspective on what ‘normal’ experience of games with in app purchases is. She asked question about games with in app purchases like ‘did you feel upset?’ ‘did you feel pressure to buy?’ and notably ‘how did online games compare to value wise to consoles?’
In response to her questions there was a diversity of moral stances. The children had a polarised view on the ethics of it: ‘I would always ask my mum’ up to ‘I could just get the credit card out of mums handbag’. The interesting thing from this was the perceived value between a boxed game and a digital game (you could always sell it on or swap). The kids made no distinction between the two, they never said anything about the difference in immersion or graphic level or even about the difference in the depth of play. The children see them all as games. All with the same ‘value’.
From an industry perspective I find this all really frustrating. I know a lot of great developers that behave impeccably, make great content and are effectively living like starving artists in garrets. At the weekend I was talking to a developer who’s living on his sister’s sofa until he can figure out how to make this industry work for him.
Yet when I think about my own behaviour as a parent I realise I can see it from both sides. We need to find equitable and ethical ways to work. To make money from our work, to find sustainability in the market and do that by not behaving in such shady ways.
For details on the speakers in this session, you can find the session guide here.