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Have You Checked Your Mobile Bill This Month?

  |  July 20, 2012   |  Comments

Will new mobile games that involve play by both the parent and child help to reduce the negative consequences of young children playing solo?

There is no denying that mobile gaming is hot! These days, mobile games generate billions of dollars in revenue and can be played on a variety of devices, making them easily accessible to players of all ages. Lately, mobile games have become extremely popular with young children, and while game developers have created a large number of apps designed specifically for that demographic, there is a significant lack of apps that actually promote quality playtime between parents and their children. And even though they are targeted at children, the majority of the apps that have been developed thus far are single-player or online-community-based games, removing parents from the equation altogether.

Because the majority of the mobile games available on the market today are single-player or online-community-based, parents aren't actually involved in the setup or exploration, and usually are forced to turn their own mobile devices over to their children. These types of games have ultimately denied parents the opportunity to play alongside their children and have in turn removed them from an integral part of their children's upbringing - exploration and play. Therefore, new mobile games that provide an experience for both the parent and child have the potential for great success. Interactive parent and child apps would allow families to spend more time together, while enjoying the latest and greatest in mobile games.

The potential success of interactive parent and child mobile games is further supported by the fact that children using their parents' devices to play single-player or online-community-based games has shown to be problematic. Many parents who have allowed their children to use their smartphones and tablets have been shocked when they end up with hundreds and even thousands of dollars of in-app charges. These charges are largely due to unintended in-app purchases within mobile games, which are free to download and play, but charge a fee for a variety of extras.

Many of the mobile games that are free in app stores often prompt players to purchase features, updates, and new content for the game. With these in-app purchasing components, children can potentially spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars without realizing that they're spending real money. The financial issues that these in-app purchases have caused have actually led to a number of lawsuits and the involvement of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The "Smurfs' Village" app by Capcom is a perfect example of a mobile game that compels children to make in-app purchases. Some parents saw charges of over $1,000, as a single purchase in "Smurfs' Village" can cost as much as $99. These charges have led to a successful lawsuit against Apple, as the large app purchases are actually processed through iTunes. As a result, the FTC is considering new rules and regulations, which will improve online purchasing disclosure.

In response to the lawsuit, Capcom has begun to limit the number of transactions that a player can make per session. However, at $99 a purchase, many parents are still not satisfied with the solution. Apple has also made changes as a result of the lawsuit. It now provides software updates that give parents the ability to shut off in-app purchase options before they hand their child their device. In addition, Apple now requires all players to enter their iTunes password every time they make an in-app purchase.

Another example of unattended in-app spending involved a 9-year-old child who decided to download a free game, but ended up accidently spending $99 on game "gems." Because the mobile game was listed as "free," the child thought that the money being spent was actually pretend money. When seeking a refund, the child's parents found out that the cancellation policy on mobile games doesn't actually include in-app purchases. The parents also discovered that the mobile game description didn't specify that the game is actually for players 14 years and older, but that it had a content rating of "Everyone."

While Apple has implemented new requirements and controls for in-app purchases, Android OS devices have not. These devices don't offer parental controls and they don't always prompt users to enter a password before making an in-app purchase. In fact, many of these devices automatically keep a player logged in to a mobile game for a certain time frame, enabling unwanted purchases to be made. Because parental controls are not built into the Android OS, parents must closely monitor the use of their mobile devices by their children.

Most mobile games targeted at children are designed to reward them for reaching new levels and in-app achievements. Often, the higher levels of mobile games offer better features, which ultimately require in-app purchases. This type of approach entices children to invest more in these mobile games so they're able to reach higher levels and ultimately complete the game. With this tactic in place by game developers, are consumers actually being taken advantage of?

As developers are being prodded to implement verification and parental consent safeguards on mobile devices, will their compliance be enough to resolve the issue of unintended in-app purchases? Meanwhile, should parents be responsible for expensive game features that were purchased by their children without their knowledge or consent? Will new mobile games that involve play by both the parent and child help to reduce the negative consequences of young children playing solo?


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Hernán Gonzalez

Instead of playing soccer like every other Argentinean teenager, Hernan spent his free time creating simple video games for the Commodore 64 and assembling joysticks with nuts, bolts, and washers. At 18, he began his career in TV as a video editor for a famous teen program in Buenos Aires. He discovered the interactive world in 1998 when he created and produced one of the first interactive TV shows. Armed with the ability to integrate TV with Internet, he founded a startup that produced and distributed content for the web. Years later, he moved to Los Angeles and cofounded Dutch Monaco.

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