When it comes to cracking down on the predatory practices of in-app purchases found in “free to play” mobile app games, the European Union is looking out for the kids. “In particular, children must be better protected when playing online,” reads the European Commission press statement announcing its latest enforcement action.
But won’t somebody please think of the grown-ups?
Opportunities to lighten your digital wallet in exchange for in-game tchotchkes have grown ever-more insidious even for the supposedly mature set. Remember Farmville? Candy Crush? Now it’s possible to level-up your way into debt with the “free” game of conspicuous consumption, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
Adults, too, are vulnerable to the in-app purchases offered within “free” games—the simpler the game, the better. As numerous studies find, tiny accomplishments—such as leveling up—release spikes of dopamine in the brain. That’s the neurochemical tied to pleasure and reinforced behavior.
Mobile game developers are well aware of what makes games engrossing enough to inspire impulse purchases. They just don’t share that information—or even a price list—with players.
If you haven’t personally experienced how engrossing such games can be, just take a look around. Take, for instance, whoever was in charge of the Twitter account for the EPA Office of Water. This person was apparently so entranced with the Kardashian game earlier this week that he or she let slip a tweet from the wrong account:
Hilarity across the Twitterverse, and then the network morning shows, ensued. Everybody loves a good twit slip. And EPA recovered with good grace:
— U.S. EPA Water (@EPAwater) July 22, 2014
Buckraking The Mobile Way
But what’s less funny is the fact that Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is projected to rake in $200 million this year, most of it likely not earned from kids who don’t know better. (Kim’s take is estimated at just $85 million.)
How do “free” mobile apps such as the Kardashian game earn money? Not in any transparent way, and that’s one of the EU’s complaints.
When reviewing the text that accompanies Kim Kardashian: Hollywood or Candy Crush or any similar game, you won’t find any disclosures—no price list breaking down what kind point-of-purchase surprises you’ll be offered to enhance your game play or when these premiums will appear. Like that magazine with intriguing gossip, or that glasses repair kit, astrology guide or candy bar you suddenly realize you need at the check-out counter, you’ll see it when you see it.
The Kardashian game offers a new twist by giving players a shortcut to Kim’s “level” of fame. Instead of “working” one’s way up the Hollywood food chain via Kim’s kindly mentoring (“dating famous people will get you more fans,” she notes), players can skip ahead by dropping $99 of real-world fiat cash on virtual K-Stars, thus paying their way to the red carpet.
Parental Controls Don’t Protect Parents—Or Anyone Else
Tales such as the 8-year-old girl who blew $1,400 on smurfberries in Smurfs Village iPad game—just one of many complaints that led to an FCC investigation and Apple’s $32.5 million in payouts to parents—mean more protection of Mom and Dad’s wallet. But parental controls that prevent kids from accessing app store wallets mean little to grownups. Ask any Candy Crush addict whose dropped hundreds, even thousands of dollars to level up, thus contributing to the nearly $100,000 Candy Crush is estimated to bring in daily.
This lack of transparency is one of several in-app purchase problems the EU urges Google and Apple, as well as developers, to address. “Games advertised as ‘free’ should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved,” reads one of the EU’s demands. “Consumers should be adequately informed about the payment arrangements for purchases and should not be debited through default settings without consumers’ explicit consent,” is another.
In the traditional gambling industry, the U.K. government is pressing mandatory rules to prevent predatory practices against habitual gamblers. In the world of mobile games, transparent practices, including a detailed price list alerting players to potential costs, is a reasonable request.
It’s no coincidence the supermarket checkout line is full of potential purchases—such random selections are the results of years of psych research from advertising agencies. All the better to appeal to your impulse control (or lack thereof)! One difference between “free” mobile apps with opaque in-app purchase prices is this: Most people aren’t constantly going through the supermarket checkout line.
Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock; game image courtesy of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood