Leaving your credit card unattended can have serious repercussions for your family’s financial well-being if a young gamer gets hold of it. Kids don’t have the same control over their spending as adults. They might not even understand they’re spending real money. A teenager who’s crazy about a game can blow thousands of dollars and empty out their parents’ bank account without even realizing it.
So, what are kids buying in games, and what can you do to keep your money safe from those up-and-coming e-sports stars?
Where game developers make money
Some parents think the spending is over after they buy a game. That misconception can cost them a fortune. Many game developers don’t earn money from the actual program. Some games can even be installed free but charge for all kinds of extras. So what can gamers spend real money on in a virtual universe?
In a virtual economy, in-game currencies work in pretty much the same way dollars or euros work in the real world. In games, you can never have too much money. You can exchange small or large sums of real money for virtual currency at any time, however; with just a couple of clicks you can top up your gaming account — and empty your bank account.
Other sources of expenditure include a plethora of weapons, armor, and other equipment — even just clothing for the player’s avatar. Teenagers buy these items to improve their character’s performance, or just to express themselves. And some items come with a hefty price tag: Take the Echoing Fury mace in Diablo III, for example, which once sold for $14,000.
One type of in-game goods is worth highlighting here: loot boxes, which are prize crates containing a random selection of virtual items. In a game, they’re a bit like lottery tickets: Players buy boxes without knowing what’s inside — they could contain truly game-changing items or just some mediocre customization options. Game developers tend to use their own terminology for loot boxes. For example, FIFA footballers come in “packs.” Packs can contain Premier League stars such as Messi or Ronaldo or run-of the-mill players from small-town clubs. Of course, chances of getting the latter are way higher.
As in real life, the road to fame and fortune can be rocky in a game. That’s why players who don’t want to spend hours training their character to level up the hard way look for shortcuts and buy boosters or time-savers, temporary optimizers that give players a competitive edge. For example, boosters can instantly increase a character’s strength and agility or attract better in-game loot.
Banners that cover half the screen or video clips that keep interrupting your session are a nuisance we’re all familiar with, even those of us who know nothing about gaming. Seeing as developers generate their revenue from advertising, they often give users the simple option of paying a certain amount of money to get rid of the ads. This usually blocks ads for good, but in some cases gamers have to make regular subscription payments to keep ads at bay.
Pitfalls and laws
Honest developers — and they do exist — sell their products without trying to manipulate players, but plenty of others use a variety of psychological methods to trick gamers into splurging.
Some of the less-ethical developers of video games use the same tricks as casino owners. They invite players to try their luck and win a unique prize in a loot box, although the chances of getting a coveted item are almost zero. This type of manipulation makes gamers pay more money, more often, hoping to win their desired prize. Even adult gamers often get reeled in.
Some developers intentionally make players perform countless repetitive and monotonous tasks to develop their characters and advance in the game. When that happens, there’s bound to be an icon somewhere near the progress bar that players can click to buy a booster.
In some cases, buying items is the only way to win. No matter how good a teenager may be at a game, for example, they can easily be trumped by any rival with a precious artifact. That puts pressure on the unfortunate gamers to buy the same item. Gaming communities call the strategy “pay-to-win.”
Developers have loads more tricks up their sleeves. For example, app creators can sell games at a fixed price and then demand a subscription payment for content that’s already been purchased, or even for the right to continue playing the game.
Many experts have long decried the current state of affairs. For example, Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) recently declared that loot boxes are setting kids up for gambling addictions. The United States is beginning to add an 18+ age rating to games with loot boxes, and Japan has banned a variation known as “complete gacha.” Laws against loot boxes exist in China, the Netherlands, and Belgium, but the gimmick remains unregulated in many countries. If your child’s favorite game keeps prompting them to buy boxes filled with random prizes, take action and read our tips on protecting yourself and your child.
How to handle in-game purchases
Now that you know what teenagers are spending money on in virtual games, you’ll be able to speak the same language with your child. All that’s left is to figure out how to protect them and keep them from wasting money — without losing their trust.
Ban games altogether
The most radical yet least effective approach is to ban a teenager from playing any games. Take that step and you’re bound to sour the relationship and teach your child to sneak around. Whether the measure will be of any use remains a question. Backed against a wall, teens will play games at friends’ houses, snoop around parents’ phones and computers to find passwords, and may start using a second phone or come up with other ploys.
Is the battle worthwhile? After all, there’s nothing wrong with playing games. Gaming is a hobby that can help kids socialize, learn about modern technology, and even think about who they want to be when they grow up.
Today’s young gamers are learning programming languages on their own and creating their own games. Just think, the kid glued to a screen slaying monsters in the next room could grow up to be the head of a major IT company!
Block access to your money
Just because your child likes games, they won’t necessarily squander your savings. As a precaution, however, we recommend keeping credit cards and payment-ready phones off-limits (and out of sight). Also, set a short timeout for the screen lock on your smartphone and disable notifications with payment confirmation codes so they don’t pop up on your lock screen.
Create a child account
Many digital distribution platforms including PlayStation Store and the Xbox Games Store have child account options. Not only do they offer basic parental controls such as a screen-time limit and block inappropriate and mature content, but they also allow you to disable all purchases or set a spending limit. If your teenager prefers playing smartphone games, for example, prevent in-app purchases through an Apple or Google family account.
Talk to your child
It’s important to keep having conversations with your kids so that you don’t feel you have to hide money from them. Try to understand what they’re asking for, discuss their favorite games with them, find out what their wishes are and what they’d like to buy. Keeping up with your teenager will show them you really care about their interests and take them seriously. This approach will help you build a trusting relationship with your teen, and you’ll be able to suggest far more interesting ideas for ways to spend money outside the game.
Depending on your budget, you can look at real things you’re willing to spend money on instead of virtual purchases. It can be fairly easy to get the message across to your kid that a new gaming mouse or headphones would be a better purchase than a skin pack and a booster.
Teach schoolchildren financial literacy
Teach your child how to control their own spending by setting up a personal card for them, and keep small amounts of money on it. If you don’t give them an allowance, now would be a good time to start. Let your teenager decide how to spend it. The sooner a schoolchild learns that splurging on games means forgoing concert tickets or new sneakers, the sooner they’ll learn to budget and spend money wisely.
Dealing with the consequences
What should you do if a young gamer already has you in the red?
- Contact your bank and try to cancel the transaction. Getting your money back depends on a number of factors, and the speed of your reaction is high on the list;
- Get in touch with the game’s support and ask them to return the money. Developers are often willing to go out of their way to avoid risking their reputation for a sum that’s a drop in the ocean compared with their total revenue;
- Make sure you mention the card was used by a minor without your permission. There’s a chance they’ll return the money, or at least part of it.
How to keep track of a schoolchild’s activity online
Don’t forget that in-game purchases aren’t the only cause for concern. Show an interest in what your child enjoys doing online apart from playing games. Ask about the websites they visit and who they chat with. Teach them security basics: Explain how scammers usually operate, how to address bullying, and how to keep gaming accounts safe from cybercriminals.
Install Kaspersky Safe Kids to help your child learn network security basics and protect them from unnecessary risks. Our solution helps parents keep track of children’s activity online, and it also offers tips from child psychologists, which will help with talking to and understanding your teenager.