From FIFA to Fortnite - What's The Impact of Video Game Micro-Transactions?
Online safety is all about spotting threats and nipping them in the bud. Some threats are easy to identify, like adult websites. But as companies become increasingly clever, it’s not always easy to address new threats to the online safety of children. Gambling sites for example, should be simple to spot. Simply screen for obnoxious colours and false promises.
But new technology brings with it new challenges, and large video game companies are at the forefront of wily new tactics to avoid regulation. So, how are they doing it?
The advent of mobile gaming has meant games are now free to play, wherever you are. Many kids today are playing child friendly games like FIFA and Fortnite, on portable devices. These child friendly games however, have ‘loot-box’ and micro-transaction mechanics built in. These digital treasure chests contain randomised items that are used to enhance the game, but are purchased using currency unique to that game. This mechanic is employed to disguise the action of spending real life money, by disconnecting the act of purchasing through a third party. Carnegie Mellon professor George Loewenstein, stated that “credit cards effectively anaesthetise the pain of paying”, because you’re not physically handing anything over. The use of in-game currencies simply adds another degree of separation between the purchase, and loss of real-world money.
A game like Fortnite for example is completely free to play, but players are constantly bombarded with limited time offers which coax the spending of in-game currency. These purchases can range from buying specific skins for a character, or buying said loot-boxes. The drip-feed nature of this process simply bolsters the process Loewenstein researched: it’s far more palatable for the human brain to spend little and often, rather than handing over lump sums in one go for the thing that you actually want.
Often though, the amount one would need to spend on loot-boxes to be given a high-value item, far exceeds the initial buying price of the specific item kids are after. How many times have you been at the penny arcade, and spent £5 worth of coppers just to get a key-ring of Prince Charles’ disembodied head to tip over the precipice? It’s not something which has any innate value, but once you reach a certain threshold, it becomes more about ‘winning’ than actually gaining the item itself.
There have also been multiple reports of children using their parents’ tablets, and spending what they believed to be insignificant digital currency - only for parents to find their bank accounts emptied.
Of course, there are ways around this happening. Always check that any device you share with your child has sufficient restrictions to stop any purposeful or accidental spending. Have a look at this BBC article for a breakdown on how to activate spending controls on any device. Ensure that before downloading something, do a quick bit of research to see if there are in-app purchases. If so, then you can take the necessary precautions to stop any nasty surprises occurring in upcoming bank statements.
Unfortunately, there can be more concerning reasons as to why kids today are so desperate for the latest items in their favourite games.
It may appear that it’s all just confined the online world, and that once they head to school it’s nothing to worry about. But a new derogatory term has entered the playground – ‘default’ - which references players of the game who don’t have premium or paid for items and skins. This term directly references the state at which a player begins at. That is to say, their in-game character only has the ‘default’ skin players are given at the very beginning of the game. This in turn, coaxes children into sinking money into the game, just to avoid teasing at school.
As we say in nearly every blog post, the first step in online safety is teaching and communicating with the kids of today. The UK gambling watchdog has just ruled that loot boxes do not fall under gambling regulations, so it’s safe to assume these mechanics will only become more prolific. Thus, using resources like Jessie and Friends, can be a great way to introduce a dialogue and education about staying safe online.