Go, search Google for phrases like “kids spending on FIFA” or “kids spending on microtransactions.” You will find plenty of results covering the emotionally charged web articles about how some children spend their families‘ fortune on videogame microtransactions. Headlines such as “6 Year Old Spends $16,000 on Microtransactions Using Mom’s Credit Card,” “Children spending £250 on Fortnite ‚skins‘ to avoid being labeled ‚the poor kid‘ at school” or “15-Year-Old Kid Spends Over $50,000 On Gold In Free-To-Play Game” keep popping up. When looking through different comment sections on the topic, I usually come across two main arguments. The first one favors the gaming companies, as parents should have absolute control over what their kids are doing online. Thus, it is their sole responsibility and fault when their kids engage in “too many” microtransactions in videogames. The second one favors the parents; only the gaming companies should be held responsible for their content, especially inside games marketed towards children. I will now argue that the primary responsibility should lie on the companies and that blaming parents is not entirely justified, as some companies would lead you to believe.
Let me first briefly introduce the concept of microtransaction through a real-world example of the videogame FIFA 21. Microtransaction (or in-app purchase, see for example Mihipal ) is a small-amount online transaction, usually around US $1-$20, facilitated through an in-game interface. This interface would be a virtual store in which players can buy virtual packs containing famous football players. Similarities can be drawn to the offline, “real-world” counterpart of buying physical packs with cards of famous football players or Pokémon from your local store. However, my first argument lies within the difference. Unlike their physical counterparts, the virtual packs cannot be traded, and the content is thus locked to your account and not refundable. Another significant difference is the presentation and deception behind different virtual in-game stores. Let us take a look at the virtual store in FIFA 21. When you enter this virtual store, you are greeted with flashy deals on virtual packs. These packs have two prices: 45,000 coins or 600 FIFA points. Players earn the coins through playing a game but they take a lot of time to acquire.
The FIFA points are a virtual currency that you can buy with real money. The problem with this approach, and why I call it deception, is twofold. First, FIFA 21 is rated E by the ESRB (2020) – meaning the game is for everyone who is three years or older. This rating would suggest that the game is safe for children to enjoy and that it does not contain adult-like activities, such as using a debit or credit card to buy things. Second, I argue that this abstraction from real-world money by substituting it with a virtual currency leads to removing the sense of buying a real thing, especially for children. Imagine you are a kid at a carnival and your parents gave you a roll of tickets you can spend on different attractions. When you run out, you have to ask your parent to buy you more. When you run out of virtual points, you are presented with a pop-up window asking if you want to increase them and that the balance will be deducted from your connected account with bigger ACCEPT and smaller DECLINE buttons. You are sometimes even encouraged to increase these virtual points outside the virtual stores during normal gameplay, from my own experience. Why is this a problem? Because of this gamification (Fitz-Walter 2021) of the real-world online transactions, it seems like just getting your coins from an in-game challenge or after winning a match. Therefore, I call it deception as it deceives players into thinking that this is not a real-world money transaction and that you are just exchanging virtual currency for virtual goods. Nevertheless, parents can prevent children from using their credit/debit card or set parent controls on the device, I hear you say.
Yes, they can. But should they? Let me first ask you something. Would you teach your six to twelve year old that they should not buy drugs from the shady dealer on the end of the school hallway? What a strange question. There should not be a drug dealer in a grade school in the first place! A school is a place where you expect kids to do what kids do in school, and to buy drugs is not one of them. If yes, then do please contact the local police station immediately. Joking aside, videogames for children embody a similar problem. They are (were) games for children. We have a specific rating system (ESRB 2020) to identify games that are for kids. These games do not contain excessive violence, blood, gore, or sex. However, FIFA 21 is rated E for everyone. It is kid-friendly and, at the same time, contains a virtual store that looks like a fun game activity where you click on ACCEPT and get points while the connected account is being charged. Are you aware of every game your kids play on their mobile phone?
There are hundreds of available titles from app stores for kids to download and play on their phones. So what? Parents should know and should prevent their kids from downloading such dangerous apps. I would ask a different question: Are they able to? From my experience, parental control is not something a non-tech savvy parent would set up flawlessly without limiting their accounts in the process. These parental control features are also, in most cases, developed by the game publishers themselves. Now ask yourself: Would you rather tell your shareholders how much money you invested in parental control that reduces income, or tell them about a new great addictive lootbox mechanic that will bring even more money? It is a matter of the age-old question of morals and money. But why would parents even consider this casino-like attitude? After all, it is a game for kids, and they should be safe, as ESRB preaches, right? No.
In sum, I have argued in favor of parents and highlighted their inevitable ignorance of game publishers‘ treacherous practices. The virtual user interface in many online games is almost seductive, and I assert that it encourages spending rather than setting limits. The new and mostly unregulated online world is where gaming companies have transformed the principle of physical mystery packs such as football players or Pokémon packs into infinite virtual goods. These companies have created virtual casinos targeted towards children and so far avoided heavy regulation by shifting the blame onto parents for not using the almost archaic and unintuitive parental control features.
To this situation, I offer a simple solution; we already have the required control institutions in place. We need to start labeling games that have microtransactions in them and thus pose a risk of kids buying them without their parents’ consent or, as I argued before, even without knowing what they are doing. Yet, simple solutions are always the hardest somehow. But we will talk about lobbying some other day.
Ondřej Klíma is a PhD student of Sociology
This post was written in conjunction with the PhD sociology course “Creative Writing in Sociology,” at the Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University, taught by B. Nadya Jaworsky.
ESRB. (2020, June 26). Blog about Parental Controls. ESRB Ratings. https://www.esrb.org/ratings/37231/FIFA+21/
Fitz-Walter, Z. (2021.). What is Gamification? Gamify. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.gamify.com/what-is-gamification
Mahipal, A. (2020, June 5). Kids mobile gaming report: More than two-thirds of parents worry kids overspending on in-app purchases. SellCell.Com Blog. https://www.sellcell.com/blog/more-than-two-thirds-of-parents-worry-kids-overspending-on-in-app-purchases/.