July 3, 2022

In-App Purchases; Whose Responsibility Is It Anyway?

Won’t someone PLEASE think of the parents?


Here’s a tale, retold as I was told by a friend of mine.

They have a six year old daughter, let’s call her May. She’s a lovely girl and she likes Disney movies, but her favourite is Finding Nemo. Her parents have a big fish-tank full of colourful, exotic-looking species and she’s got this idea in her head that the opening and closing of their mouths are an attempt to talk to her, and so she can sit there for hours and have a perfectly coherent conversation with them because they do it in Finding Nemo. Yes ladies and gentlemen, childhood innocence is alive and well in some places, and let’s be thankful for it. Anyway, there’s an app of Finding Nemo and my friends – who both work – like the idea of Disney games. They trust the brand, and the image. All is good so far, right?

The premise of the Finding Nemo app is to place certain resources to attract fish, which in turn rewards you with “Fish Dollars” to buy more resources to place for more fish and so on and so on. It’s a repetitive loop, a cycle of pointless diversion, but that said – for a child, it’s simple to understand. There is no ulterior goal, nothing too complicated and considering the Finding Nemo-ness of it all, seems perfectly pitched at a very young audience who have their parents prized iPad generic tablet device. Not that I, as a gamer, have moral superiority on repetitive tasks considering my resource farming this weekend in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. It’s ultimately how you appreciate the task in hand.

What was noted however was just how aggressive the In-App Purchase was pushed in it. Now, these adults were fortunately supervising their little darling so nothing untoward happened, however it was ever-present and aggressively pushed, often large sums of money were involved and being asked for, and it soured the formula somewhat. Instead of being a fun time-wasting distraction, there was always a worry – moreso with the news that several children have racked up hundreds and in a few cases, thousands of pounds worth of purchases on their parents devices – that lovely little May would ultimately pick a button to make the game go a little faster and draw in more fishies, which would have – of course – involved an in-app purchase. This isn’t because she’s careless; but because she wants more fishies. You can’t tell me, as a concerned “uncle” (not by relation but my friends kids all seem to call me Uncle Kami or Uncle Kaz, and I love it!), that any app branded as Finding Nemo is not being aimed at children. I just wouldn’t, nay couldn’t, believe you.

Now, you could argue that some in-app stores/purchases aren’t aimed at children, but I find myself asking why so many of these expensive purchases tend to be in bright, colourful cartoony games if they are not being expressly and aggressively aimed at children? Some of them just want to finish the game, not realising that the way many of these “games” are designed means there absolutely is no ending, no credits, no movie reel to conclude things. Just the requirement of more and more resources, which takes longer and longer to rack up, making an in-app purchase look dangerously tantalising as children want things to happen, quickly. Some of them, like May, may enjoy the whole bright and brash action on screen and want more of it, and heck, if you can make it happen with 50,000 Fish Dollars, so be it! (with small text somewhere nearby stating this costs £39.99!). Some of them may just not understand or be aware of what the button does if it isn’t very clearly marked, which happens in some apps.

Now, the gaming world – typically, I might add – this weekend has largely stated that the parents should pay more attention. And it’s hard to disagree with the idea of parental responsibility. It is important that parents set down rules and guidelines and ultimately teach their offspring about fiscal responsibility and how nasty faceless people far, far away want to steal their money. I won’t deny that parents should set tighter parental controls – they are there, and whilst they should be on by default when in so many cases they aren’t, it’s a necessary evil in a world where more and more of what we do is finding its way online, or to the cloud, or connected to the Internet in some shape or form. Parents should, quite rightly, take ultimate responsibility for what their children do and in some cases will have to learn that they will lose something in order to teach these little ones a lesson. It’s the way of the world.

However, my friends work full-time jobs, they tag-team parent in an age where neither of them can afford to be without a job. There’s barely any time for them as they struggle to pay their bills, mortgage, buy the food, keep May clothed and entertained and so on. You can argue this is absentee parenting but this is the modern world, and has been largely the world in which we live since the 1980’s when Mrs. Thatcher encouraged people to strive for more, buy their own homes, buy all those expensive luxuries and get a bigger family car and so on. Since we went from a socialist state to a capitalist stronghold, this has been how it has worked. I knew growing up that my grandparents struggled to raise me – my grandfather didn’t retire until I was 19, and even then he had no choice because of having had a heart attack. My grandmother was always busy too – working with the Women’s Institute, setting up coffee mornings and bingo nights and arranging events. I knew they loved me, deeply, but like many children of my age at the time, when I brought them back home with me for games or homework (or later for other naughty teenage things) – there was no adult supervision there. And it was the same if I went to someone else’s house. The realities of parenting then, and now, is that many have to work to keep a roof over our heads and afford all those lovely little luxuries we take for granted.

Taking this into consideration, moreso in a bleak economic climate where every penny matters more than ever before, is it wrong then for parents to expect protections and assistance? When they arrange for a game, or an app, to be downloaded, should they be worried about the security when they have to do the laundry and cook dinner and clean the hallway and a lot of other various things which ultimately seem more important because otherwise people (readas: social services) may think they are unfit parents? Or should they expect Apple, and Google, to protect them and their interests and financial details? Why should there be a default 15-minute “grace” period between the password being entered and being needed again for purchases? Anything could be downloaded in this scenario! And this isn’t merely limited to in-app purchases either…

The UK’s Office of Fair Trading is now investigating whether there is a serious case to be made for regulation and rules; arguably it is not the first time they have had to intervene in the mobile market. Consider the old “Mobile Service Delivery”, often in the form of wallpapers and ringtones. Many of these services would be unwilling to note that by downloading a freebie, you were then to be signed up for a weekly or monthly service that cost more money than buying the individual content that you wanted. Eventually texts could be sent out and any response could be made to look like permission to deliver these subscription-based services, further muddying the waters. Regulations have intervened now that such services have to be expressly opt-in, with a clear “STOP” option if the person changes their mind and wishes to discontinue the service. There are aggressive penalties for those who flout the rules.

Many might think the value of in-app purchases being so wildly speculative would make this hard, but again there is precedent. There was a brief period that we had a wide range of “Quiz Channels” here in the UK as gambling laws were relaxed somewhat. You called in to guess at answers on a board, on a premium-rate telephone number that could cost up to £2.99 a minute, with a default two minute length, to enter a competition where the answers were not always entirely honest. I remember a channel which ran one of these for hours asking for a set list of answers of; “Something a woman might keep in her handbag”. Two of these answers were “A Balaclava” and “Tin of Sardines”. A woman MIGHT keep them in her handbag, sure, but I am reliably informed that the chances of finding these in a woman’s handbag are minuscule at best. Regulatory bodies had to step in as such abuses became more and more wild and crazy, like “Things you’d see in the countryside” including answers such as Boxing Gloves, Tellytubbies and A Plane Crash. The end result was that such services and channels all but disappeared, as the regulations made it impossible for them to continue to operate a profitable model. It seems cruel, but making money through dishonesty and being deliberately obtuse isn’t exactly a good way to make money, is it? And that’s before you got to the idea that people could be cut off these lines and still be charged because they weren’t selected to have a guess!

So there are precedents. Individual responsibility is important, however the requirement of a business to operate honestly and fairly trumps that. In the real world, if I go and buy a “Refurbished TV” from an Electricals chain, there is a legal requirement that states they must ensure it is in working order, as described, and come with a thirty-day no-quibble returns policy should anything go wrong. The rules are there for good reason; when you are paying sometimes large sums of money, or trying to save a little bit by buying an ex-display or refurbished unit, you – as a consumer – should get exactly what it is they are selling you. If they sell you a product that goes bang after two days, and then don’t take it back, they are breaking trading laws. They could be prosecuted, and fined, which ultimately lands them in the local news for it and people don’t ever want to go there ever again leading to the business collapsing. It’s all done in OUR interests. Given an inch, they would run a mile – and in-app purchases haven’t limited their run to just a mile either. With some in-app purchases aimed at the young costing as much as £69.99 a time, and some of these companies making a million dollars every single day, there has never been a stronger argument for the trading authorities to get involved and ensure that fair play is applying to the market; and if it isn’t, to apply regulations to ensure fair play is part of the market.

Of course, you could argue this is the job of Apple and Google, who help operate and promote the two major storefronts. And there is an argument to be made for this; however, they believe volume gives the impression of activity, and with thousands of apps being submitted daily, it must be a rough job trying to ensure that they aren’t fleecing their customers. I struggle with a game or two a week; think about people who have to look at a hundred apps or more in any given day! I can think of few jobs that would be more soul-crushing and mind-numbing than that. To employ more people would be to increase the workload and therefore, the amount of money required for wages would increase. Basic capitalist principles, which would soon negate the free nature of the market – or, worryingly, attract the storefronts to prioritise those who can make them the most money so they can take a share of the profits.

And we, as outsiders, need to be careful of excusing the behaviour of the market – especially as gamers, as we have no moral superiority to call our own. DLC was excused as a good idea, and it probably was once upon a time. Now we see day-one DLC additions designed to make more money from the gullible, the foolish and the blindly loyal. We see costumes for characters costing £4.99. We see a language pack now costing $30. We excused the market because the idea was “nice”, but they found ways of exploiting it, and us, to the fullest. We defended the cost of X-Box Live, even in the face of the PS+ service being clearly better value for money, and now Microsoft is said to be looking at more always-online functionality, because it believes people will defend it for them (and they are. By golly, they are…). “But companies need to make money!” – of course they do, but sometimes, it’s how you make that money that matters. Dishonestly fleecing your customers can be profitable in the short term, but Apple has already discovered (after being made to refund large numbers of purchases after losing a court battle in the United States) that in the long term, it might be financially damaging to their business and their reputation. We made excuses and now, nearly eight years later, we are as gamers soon to reap what was sown, and find ourselves being charged the same – or more – for less, more day-one DLC, more things cut and resold, more emphasis on online passes and in-game transactions.

The Manic Street Preachers had a track once called, “If You Tolerate This (Then Your Children Will Be Next)”. We tolerated it, in apps and games. And now, those same principles are being put into apps aimed at children. We tolerated it. And now we’re watching them target our children. A song title has made manifest its meaning; so perhaps, instead of trying to blame each other and accusing people of being bad parents, or lazy regulators, or heartless freaks, perhaps it’s time we took a step back and asked ourselves, like the OFT, if the market has created this perfect storm to obfuscate the exploitative mechanics that allow them to make such huge sums of money for arguably very little? The more we try and blame each other, the more companies will slip more of these things under the radar. The more we will argue. The more they will be able to get away with.

United we stand, divided we fall. The market has often used this principle to show how a fragmented market can sometimes descend into anarchy and chaos, because it is hard to always manage two-dozen separate markets. Sometimes this is why there are laws and regulations; so that markets, once self-regulatory, can continue to do so but are also required to exist within the confines of the legal system. Self-regulation is a great idea, until companies realise they could work together to make more money or hoodwink the market.

This goes back to my discussion a few weeks ago about how, in terms of technology, we have reached The Grey Zone. A place which we have rushed into blindly, unaware that the law doesn’t quite afford us the protections we are used to. But, we can change it. The law is catching up, we have the ability to warn each other and detail what apps and titles are best avoid. We may have been rushed into this area, but more importantly, in doing so they have given us access to the greatest weapon of all; freedom of information, and the free exchange of information. And rather than argue constantly, we should be uniting as one to stand up for our rights, and our money, and the future of the very things we love.

For it’s easy to throw blame around. We do not have to take responsibility for our own part in the descent of the very things we once thought would help us. It’s easy to expect others to fight on our behalf; it’s easy to think that others will not buy an item even if you do. It’s easy to say this on the Internet, where we arguably can say one thing and in reality do something completely different. It’s easy to do nothing; because to do nothing is to let others do it for you.

Yet in doing nothing, we risk everything. And whilst parents and the industry may need to take responsibility, perhaps we all have our own small piece of blame in how things have turned out. We can’t seriously say that we thought these companies wouldn’t look for loopholes and markets to exploit, can we? If a bubble bursts, people lose their jobs – in some cases, innocent people. There will always be a victim, even if technically such things aren’t yet considered a crime. Morally reprehensible, yes. Dangerously and deviously exploitative? Of course. Criminal? Unfortunately, no. Not yet, anyway.

It’s not the children who will pay the price though. It is the parents. And it’s time we gave them more sympathy for doing an impossible task in this modern world, a thankless task. One we all assume comes naturally, but instead now has to fit around hectic schedules and improbably work hours. We can no longer assume the 50’s ideal of a stay at home mother and a working father can apply; the world is different, we are different. Coming on the back of my generation, where we were left with consoles and TVs and PC’s and other things to keep us amused whilst the adults weren’t there, it’s what we know. It’s how we were raised, and how most parents now were raised through the mid-80’s to the present day. This has been the method of parenting for thirty years almost. How are we at all surprised? How can we expect better if we’re constantly bombarded with expectations of how to do things?

It’s easy to blame the parents. Blaming the market pitching a £70 purchase at a six-year old girl with an overactive imagination merely wanting to see more fish on her screen? That’s harder.

But it’s no less important. Because the message we’re sending, both ways, is terrible. It’s okay to sell an expensive purchase to a child without their parents knowledge. It’s okay for companies to do this because heck, if a parental unit is struggling so much that they expect systems in place to protect them and their children haha, bigger fool them. And similarly, children – it’s okay to spend money to make life easer. You can throw money at something and all the problems go away. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be your money! It can be your parents!

And this ideal world in which we all share an idyllic vision of would be one where we look out for each other, help each other. We expect parents to conform to an unrealistic idyll of expectation, and yet we cannot conform to the flipside expectation where we all hug each other and help and protect each other from the nasty forces of evil seeking to steal all we have. We want it all. But end up giving, and adding, nothing to the discussion save empty words and insults.

And it could do without that. What the market needs is a thorough medical once-over to see if it really is fit for purpose. If not, then let it be regulated. But let’s at least leave it at that for now, because otherwise, we’re just going to say nasty, stupid things.

And really, we could all do without that.


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