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Children and in-app purchases: Should parents, developers or Apple take responsibility?

The Mobile Gaming Mavens discuss
Children and in-app purchases: Should parents, developers or Apple take responsibility?

In a week when Apple proposed offering families in the US refunds if their kids make in-app purchases without their permission, so news of a child in the UK who has accidentally spent more than £1,700 in playalso hit the headlines.

Apple's move made as part of a settlement with five parents who took legal action against Apple in 2011 after their kids amassed huge bills without their consent suggests the giant is willing to accept some responsibility for the issue, but should it?

We asked our Mavens:

Whose role is it to ensure children don't spent thousands of dollars on in-app purchases the parents or the platform holder? And is the offer of refunds enough?

Do developers have a responsibility to ensure children make informed purchase decisions?

Dave Castelnuovo

Dave Castelnuovo

Owner at Bolt Creative

This is a tricky issue and I think it depends on the policy to prevent people from misusing the system.

In principle, I believe a parent should be reimbursed if, unbeknownst to them, their child racked up a second mortgage worth of debt by playing a fish game. However, this type of policy can be completely abused.

Is someone able to be reimbursed even if they were the ones that made the purchases and they got tired of the game? Does this policy include non F2P apps like comic apps? Can someone file for reimbursement after they purchases and read a ton of comics?

I definitely think there is some evolution that is necessary on the part of free to play games - especially games that are marketed toward children. Young children don’t have a proper concept of money.

Ideally, parents should be the ones that are responsible for their children's actions, but realistically many parents are not that technologically literate and would have no idea that the free game they downloaded for their kids has a button that charges their credit card $100 every time someone presses it.

Parents currently have the tools to protect their kids from violence and adult content. Every app has a content warning in its description and they have the ability to block that content on the device itself. I think they need to have the equivalent protection and information for in app purchases.

I think the maximum value in-app purchase should be spelled out loud and clear for parents that are considering buying the game. Maybe even a warning (similar to the current 18+ warning) if it’s possible to spend more than a certain amount inside a free game.

There should also be an option that forces you to enter your password for every purchase. If a parent wants to lock their kid’s device down, they can do so and they would have the information that need to protect their finances.

If an adult owns the device, I believe they should be able to disable both features.

John Golden

John Golden

Senior Director of Marketing at PlayPhone

There is a law in the US called the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that puts rules and restrictions in place if a product is marketed to kids 12 and under.

One of the rules requires a parent’s permission for a child under 13 to play and participate in a game if the game is marketed to kids.

It sounds like we need to implement game ratings for apps (similar to ESRB ratings for video games) that provide parents with information on target audiences for game apps so parents have a better understanding of the type of content their kids are ingesting.

Games that are targeted to kids under 13 should require parental permission. Games that are targeted to kids 13 and older should be marked as such and parents are responsible for deciding if they want their kids to play the game and for whatever consequences are involved with that decision.

Scott Foe

Scott Foe

Chief Product Officer at Ignited Artists

While I appreciate and support the very strong desire to protect children('s parents wallets), the last thing we want is a ratings system for games that aren't sold at retail: Anybody who has ever had to go through submitting for ESRB or PEGI will high-five me on that one.

They'll high-five me again when considering that a lot of other territorial ratings systems would also go into account for global launches. And, they'll high-five me when they consider that, every time new content is added, all of these ratings would have to be re-evaluated.

I say we should just have one, global rating system, which features one and only one rating: "This game is rated 'WTF' for: You wouldn't hand your two-year-old your credit card so why the fuck are you handing them your phone?"

High five!

Michael Schade

Michael Schade

CEO / Co-Founder

High five!

If there's going be a regulation on in-app purchases because some parents neglect their parental duties and escalate that in front of US courts, then we can kiss goodbye to mobile games generating 8 digits dollar revenue.

That's because the premium model is already broken due to the absence of reasonable user perception of quality games, itself due to the developers' desperate but natural price race to the bottom.

I can already see Zynga stock price in free fall again and a mobile games investment dollars freeze!

Oscar Clark

Oscar Clark

Chief Strategy Officer at Fundamentally Games

We've talked about kids and spending a few times now and I think we generally agreed that there are practical methods to minimise the likelihood of kids spending money without permission (and indeed to limit anyone making a mistake when buying something).

If you don't provide clear information, trigger purchases within 15 minutes of the install/last purchase, are overly manipulative in the way you target spending then you will get players (kids or adults) asking for their money back and many more players never playing your game again.

We have an incentive to generate life-time value and not paying attention to how much our players (and their parents) feel they can trust us is incredibly short sighted and I believe will be a Darwinian issue - people who abuse the model will not survive in the end.

Of course, the reality is that some people are only interested in how much they can make now and don't care about (or understand) the impact their design decisions are having.

So there is a credible risk that we will see regulation unless we can find a way to demonstrate that our games follow best practice.

Does that mean we use PEGI/ESRB models? I don't know. I feel that it shouldn't be necessary, but more than that I feel that game monetisation is still evolving and writing down specific rules would simply inhibit the opportunity for us to continue to create new models which would further delight players.

John Ozimek

John Ozimek

Co-founder at Big Games Machine

Of course developers have a significant responsibility in this, and it would be deeply disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Any developer, should they wish to, could make the purchase of high value in-app purchase harder than it is. Why don't they do it? Because we all know that the best way to make money out of IAP is to make it as easy as possible to spend money.

So why are we surprised when kids do exactly what a game is designed to do?

It's an interesting topic in the light of the recent discussion about EA shifting Real Racing 3 to freemium, and the subsequent calculation that it costs more than $500 to unlock all the content and upgrades in the game.

I welcome anyone that can convince me that's anything less than a cynical and calculated attempt to get as much money from people as possible, and sod the ethics. Stuart Dredge also writes very intelligently about the IAP issue in kids apps over on The Guardian.

In a similar vein, I've always felt the idolisation of so-called 'whale' consumers in mobile and social games to be deeply troubling; sure, many gamers are happy and willing to spend considerable sums on games, but also many of these 'whales' seem to show the same spending patterns that addicted gamblers do.

I know of a Facebook games company that saw 15 percent of their 2011 revenues generated by a single woman living in the US: do we really think that that kind of behaviour is normal or healthy? If they spent the same amount on fruit machines we'd be sending them for counselling.

We've been here before of course. First there was Jamba! and its less-than-clear monthly subscriptions, then the premium SMS voting scandal that burned the fingers of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Now I think its IAP that is getting out of hand. Is it so important to make a quick buck?

I really do feel that as an industry, if we don't learn some lessons and act responsibly of our own volition, then we can't complain when the rules get changed and the good guys end up with the same punishment as the bad guys.