Not So Free

Blake* ’16 spent his summer between ninth and 10th grade like many other students: working at a summer job. However, the money he earned for each scoop of ice cream he served went to paying a debt to his parents, one he owed after spending about $1,000 of their money in three months on the iPhone game Clash of Clans.

In Clash of Clans, users create their own bases and raid other bases with traps and soldiers, using resources gathered slowly through in-game mechanics or by spending real cash. By spending cash, users can easily obtain large numbers of resources, such as elixir and gold, and progress through the game more quickly.

Blake got so absorbed by the game that he started to lose track of how much money he was actually spending.

“I spent only a little in the beginning because it was a fun game, and I wanted to have a good castle,” Blake said. “It got to an absurd amount because my parents never confronted me about it initially, so I actually thought I wasn’t being charged.”

However, because he charged the cost to his parents’ debit card, they eventually got upset, and Blake had to contact iTunes to refund as much of his money as possible. He then had to work over the summer and sold various items of his to pay his parents back the rest. iTunes has since implemented features to reduce the number of users making in-app purchases without knowing.

This type of “freemium” game, where users can gather items slowly by playing and waiting long amounts of time for structures to build, or just simply purchase in-game currency or resources to progress instantly, has become quite common in the last few years. At press time, eight of the ten top grossing apps on the app store were “freemium” games with in-app purchases, and according to a Chronicle poll of 412 students, 36 percent of students have spent money on in-game purchases.

In FIFA 15 Ultimate Team, which is available on XBOX and Playstation consoles in addition to on the iPhone, users own a team of players, represented by cards. The game starts users out with a “bronze” level team, the lowest tier of players. Users can then earn in-game gold through winning games, and then buy players off the market, or spend cash on “card packs” that drop higher-level “gold” or “in-form” cards (rare cards available only for a week after the player does well in real life) to improve their team.

The publishers of both games take advantage of players’ competitive nature to increase purchases. In FIFA, for example, if a player is “in-form” for a second time, that new card is better than the previous, encouraging players who aim for the best team to buy more packs.

“My competitiveness drives me,” said Michael Mapes ’16, who has spent money in FIFA 15. “My friends play, and I want to beat them.”

Games such as FIFA and NBA 2K15’s version of ultimate team, MyTeam incentivize users to buy by making the packs random.

Sometimes players can get very rare and valuable cards that are worth more and encourage more purchases.

“When I got Michael Jordan in MyTeam on 2K, I was so excited that I woke my brother up with all the noise I was making, and my mom took away the Xbox for a few days after that,” said Winston* ’16, who lost track of how much money he spent on NBA 2K over an 18-month period.

Others are motivated to spend money, not to just keep up with their friends, but simply because they enjoy the game.

“[FIFA]’s just a really fun game. It’s all I play,” Ray Mueller ’17 said. “I’m very aware of the money I spend on it. My parents made it very clear to me, asking, ‘You know what you’re doing, right?’ But it’s fun, I have no regrets.”

While many would use their parents’ credit cards, some students found themselves spending their own money on these games.

“I mostly used gift cards,” Winston said. “But it got to the point where I would ask for gift cards, and I would buy them with my own money as well.”

The gift cards he bought were for Microsoft Points, Microsoft’s Xbox currency, which can then be used to purchase in-game items such as packs.

Even though they spent a lot of money, students still enjoyed it.

“I didn’t regret much,” Winston said. “It was the best use of my gifts at the time. Eventually I just stopped playing those types of games and moved on to other stuff.”

However, others feel bad about the amount they spent and how they spent it.

“It was not worth it in the slightest,” Blake said. “I regret spending any money at all because it wasn’t my money, and it was a silly iPhone game.”

Measures can be taken by users and parents to help prevent spending on in-game purchases. Parents can use restriction settings to disable in-app purchases, require an account password for every purchase and limit children’s spending abilities.

These features were implemented when iOS 4.3 was released in 2011, but after a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission last January, Apple has tried to make users more aware. The settlement, according to the FTC, required Apple to refund $32.5 million to customers, especially children, who were unaware they had been spending money on in-app purchases.

The main complaint was that Apple by default allowed users to make purchases for 15 minutes after first entering their password. Apple, in response, implemented a warning in iOS 7.1 to users after every purchase about this grace period, and explaining how to disable this feature.

Apple has tried to raise awareness by stating on the app-store page if apps include in-app purchases. They also are going along with a European Commission decision that Google could not label apps that offer in-app purchases as “free” in Europe, and have relabeled the button to download free apps with “GET” instead of “FREE.” Additionally, all apps that offer progression through in-app purchases have a first time start-up warning about the in-app purchases.

Both Xbox and PlayStation also support parental controls, which can disable purchasing power on accounts.

Some students are able to get by without spending any money.

“It’s a terrible business model that screws people over who don’t want to spend tons of money,” said Ben Goldstein ’15, who has spent almost no money on any in-game purchase.

*Names have been changed

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