Game in-app purchases are warping kids’ understanding of basic economic ideas

December 29, 2016
in Kids

It is nighttime and my young son is asleep; I am awake and trying to help him. If he were a little older I might be gluing something onto a science project or baking cupcakes for a school event. Instead, I am drawing my finger over lines of imaginary fruit on an iPad, trying to rack up points so he can better enjoy a game called Fruit Pop, a matching game similar to the wildly popular Candy Crush. Specifically, I am trying to increase the stack of coins in his account so that he can buy boosts that alter the game in some way (such as giving the player more than the normally allotted sixty seconds per turn). After a while, it becomes evident that the easiest way to obtain coins is simply to buy them with real cash—such as 50,000 coins for $1.99 (the most common in-app purchase in Fruit Pop). Many parents will recognize that in-app purchases on apps largely aimed at kids are one of the most insidious inventions of modern times. Not surprisingly, they are also lucrative: the global market for in-app purchases (not all aimed at kids) is estimated to hit about $30 billion next year, which is especially impressive considering that fewer than ten years ago it was zero. Part of the indignation is that most parents would prefer not to see their kids rack up spending on any kind of game. Yet as our experience with Fruit Pop and other games demonstrates, there is another set of lessons that seems undesirable. The design of many of these games sends potentially confusing signals to children about fundamental economic ideas like value and pricing. There are thousands of kids’ apps out there, and there must be some in which purchases are built into the need to progress through the game, e.g., in order to get from Level 3 to Level 4, you need to buy a magic wand for $2.99. But I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one. Instead, the games my son has favored over the last few years feature a deliberate and extreme gamification that encourages players to exchange real cash for items that, even within the context of the game, have questionable value. Take Fruit Pop as an example. To score points in a sixty-second game, you draw a line with your finger over as many of a type of fruit as possible; those fruit then disappear and are replaced by other fruit. At the end of every game, you are then awarded coins, in an amount that bears no obvious relation to the score you just achieved. If you accumulate enough coins, you can buy “boosts,” special powers (like slowing the game down or extra-long chains of fruit) that may allow you to get a higher score over the three-game...

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