For a player of Fortnite, engaged in a “Clash Royale,” clicking to get a new skin might seem like a life-or-death choice, the difference between success and the praise of fellow players or defeat and derision from friends for days. And the click might not seem like much; it costs just a few dollars. But those clicks can add up quickly, and parents who find thousands of dollars of charges racked up on their accounts wind up confronting children who have little to show for their spending—other than another status level on a game.
The trend is both a parenting crisis and a game marketer’s boon. It also represents an ethical question related to the appropriate ways to market to children. The sense of engagement and compulsion created by many modern role-playing and interactive games can be particularly strong among young players, who likely have not developed the maturity to recognize the inducements that the game is applying or to make complex buying decisions.
Purchases become particularly hard to resist when they are presented like play money. Bright colors and gemstones make it seem as if in-game purchases are pretend, but even if the item obtained is virtual, they are still linked to an actual account. Usually games, even those with a free, basic version, require a credit card to start play. Those cards usually belong to the parents, because children are not eligible for most credit accounts. The resulting sense of unreality—not only does the game make it look like pretend money, but the children might never have to pay anything if their parents don’t notice the charges—makes it virtually irresistible for kids to buy stuff, especially if their friends already have the latest upgrades. In turn, in-game purchases amounted to approximately $93 billion last year, though not all of those purchases were by children of course.
Still, the game developers love these microtransactions. The small amounts add up for them as well, such that most of Fortnite’s estimated $3.9 billion in revenue was earned from in-game purchases by players. They also note that most games have settings that enable parents to limit the amounts spent or that alert them anytime a player makes a purchase while playing the game.
For parents, the challenge goes beyond a big credit card bill or two (though those can be shocking as well). They seek to teach their kids how to understand and use money, and if children are determined to spend their allowance on in-game virtual weaponry or skills, seemingly they should be allowed to do so. Some parents even have gone to handing their children iTunes gift cards instead of cash for their allowance, so they can more readily spend their money how they want.
Such options might help parents keep their household budgets balanced in the short term, but they do not address the wider societal question about whether gamers can learn about real money and responsible spending from virtual environments that literally sell the depiction, rather than any actual item.
1. How involved are young consumers in games? How involved are they in making decisions to engage in purchases within those games?
2. Should there be more restrictions on whether and what in-game options children can buy? Why or why not?
Source: Julie Jargon, “You Spent $1,500 on Virtual Bazookas? Kids Are Splurging on Digital Goods,” The Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2019