Just Say No To Smurfberries: Governments Take Aim on Virtual Goods

Steve Anderson : End Game
Steve Anderson
The Video Store Guy
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Just Say No To Smurfberries: Governments Take Aim on Virtual Goods

The free to play gaming market has made some pretty substantial strides of late, with game makers discovering there's a lot of money to be had in offering up the game for free, but later offering components of the game for a fee. Game players seem to enjoy the possibility inherent in playing a game at no charge but later supporting that game—should the game prove supportable—by means of making payments later on. But there are abuses to the system—as is commonly the case with most any system—and that's got lawmakers turning attention to the virtual goods market.

Every so often, stories crop up about how kids get involved with free to play games, and then proceed to run up massive bills—often on their parents' dime—with the paid portion of the games in question. The parents believe the game free when they turn over the reins to the children, and the children really don't make the connection between “press this button to get more missiles / berries / credits / what have you” and “pressing this button activates our billing mechanisms and at the end of the month demands a fat check from mommy and daddy who must work hard to make that money.” This disconnect often leads to problems, like a recent story in which a young man went donut-crazy in “The Simpsons: Tapped Out”, buying around $1,650 worth of in-game donuts. While the boy's parents were refunded the money, tales of kids running up big charges are becoming steadily more prevalent, and that's got lawmakers wondering if Something Should Be Done About This.

The lawmakers' perceptions don't seem exactly out of line; said perceptions were based on the study of 38 different Web-based and app-based games, and yielded some really rather basic standards that game makers will be expected to live by, at least, for the time being, in the UK and potentially beyond. For instance, games will be expected to make a clearer differentiation between buying something using in-game currency and buying something using real-life currency. One game, it was noted, urged players to feed a seagull, but didn't note that doing so would have cost the player actual money.

While the first solution to any problem really shouldn't be “let the government handle it,” the idea that some small changes are necessary does make some sense here. We've already seen a lot of cases where children are running up charges, and the parents have to go through and somehow try and get these charges removed, or at least reduced. Indeed, the parents have to take some blame here for not understanding how the games work. Admittedly, game makers have to shoulder a bit of that blame too for not being clear and up-front about how this sort of thing works, but there's also something to be said for parents just handing over a smartphone and letting the kids merrily play away with no supervision. Children need to be supervised; this is simply the nature of children. But by like token, game makers should be a help to parents understanding games, not a neutral bystander or, worse, an active hindrance to understanding.

The laws in question, assuming they don't go much farther, look like there will be a significant, but thoroughly common-sense impact involved.  A little extra information—clear, and easy to understand, not couched in piles of jargon from several different industries including the legal field—will go a long way here, and parents can likewise step in to protect themselves as well by doing things like switching to, for example, iTunes gift cards instead of connecting to a credit card. A little extra consideration on everyone's part and we'll all likely be better off for it. The game makers get continued access to a valuable business model, parents get no more bill shocks, and kids get to keep playing games. A little prudence, and a little forbearance—kids, just say no to smurfberries—and we'll all come out better on the other side.
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