Accidental Mammoth-Transactions: A Case Study of Who is to Blame

A brief look at a situation where micro-transactions spiralled out of control in the hands of a young child.

After coming across an article that covered a story where a young child spent £4000 on his father’s iPad playing the Jurassic World mobile game, I was inspired to give my own thoughts on so-called “micro-transactions”. If you aren’t familiar with the term, these are essentially “small” payments available within certain games in exchange for in-game items and benefits. Though in this case, it turned out that these “micro-transactions” quickly became “mammoth-transactions” a mere 5 days later.

It is an interesting subject, one that many of you who follow the news, even remotely, would know has been in the public eye numerous times before. I also suspect it is one that will only become more relevant in time, considering the rapid growth mobile games have experienced in the past few years, as well as their gradual inclusion in major console franchises like Call of Duty and FIFA. After perusing the details of this incident, I have identified four of the main culprits and will proceed to act as a one-man-jury of sorts for each one:

All right, I’ll cut the act, it’s probably obvious to you that every party involved holds some responsibility -- in one way or another. The issue is one of assigning the right level of blame. I’ll start with the main person of interest, the child himself.

The Child

To be honest, there isn’t much to say about young Faisall Shugaa, at the end of the day he is simply just a normal 7-year-old boy. As his father, Mohamed Shugaa, desperately tried to explain to Apple: “Faisal is only seven, he doesn’t understand the real value of money and what the payments in the game involved.”

I’m sure most of us can admit that our seven-year-old selves have done something just as silly...although a slightly stronger synonym is more appropriate in this scenario. In my opinion it does take quite a smart kid to memorize his father’s Apple ID and navigate through the appropriate pages and menus, I’d wager that I would have lost my patience at that age. However, even if we were to believe the fact that Faisall knew what he was doing all along, his father is stil right. To Faisall, the process of completing all these micro-transactions probably seemed like part of the gameplay in Jurassic World -- a special challenge to obtain some more items.

It would be quite a stretch to infer any genuine malicious intent from a naive child like Faisall.

The Developer

Ah, of course! Then surely it must be the game developer’s fault! A large majority of these free to play mobile games have been deliberately constructed to achieve this exact purpose! Those conniving developers had been gradually waging war against the gamer's psyche for all this time, manipulating us into clicking that “buy” button. A 7-year-old like poor Faisall didn’t stand a chance!

This is also true, having played countless free to play mobile games in the past; I, like a wizened war veteran, am all too familiar with the devious ways in which such games are designed. Everything from the “premium currencies” used to purchase exclusive items and the bombardment of supposed “special offers”, to the energy meter, which forces us to wait incessantly to perform every single action. All of these are common tactics employed by almost every single free to play mobile game I have had the displeasure of playing, believing the next one would transcend the crumbling expectations I have of them.

Though as much as I would like to condemn specific games like these to the depths of hell, where a lot of them rightly belong, I hate to admit that I simply cannot pass such a merited judgement on these companies. It would be unconscionable to do so. After all, these companies are simply fighting for their own existence. As profits from these mobile games have been relentlessly climbing for the past couple years, this has clouded the perspectives of the executives and shareholders. In other words, this has already become the norm that future profitability will be judged upon.

This explains how, year after year, many of these games still end up being shut down permanently, no matter how profitable they may seem.

To help you visualize this, if these companies were blood-sucking mosquitoes, not only have we been too lazy to put up the mosquito nets, we have already welcomed them with our bare chests. Remember, when you see those absurdly expensive shop items, sometimes reaching prices in excess of £100, they exist for a reason – there are people who actually buy them.

The Storefront

Some of you may be less sympathetic towards Apple. The fact that incidents like these can still happen, 7 years after the launch of the app store, may be unacceptable to some.

I beg to differ. I think that as a business that is out to make a profit, Apple’s current system should be enough to prevent 99% of instances like these. They already send out receipts after store purchases -- contrary to what Mohamed said about being uninformed of the matter. Maybe his got redirected to the trash folder; we just don’t know. In addition Apple does require users to enter their password upon purchasing something. While some of these mobile games are heavily advertised to be “FREE” in the description, Apple does force them to be labelled as containing in-app purchases where appropriate -- although maybe they could do a better job of explaining what micro-transactions are.

Apple's recent decision to replace the word "Free" to "Get" on the download button is another step in their effort to eliminate any ambiguity consumers may have. But you really want them to go the extra mile, you could always argue that there’s always new functions that could be implemented to further prevent this from happening; such as children accounts that disable purchases or payment limits that users can set to prevent overspending.

The reality is, a password is still just a password. When a child, like Faisall, can gain access to your password, there is not much that could be done to prevent this situation from happening.

Remarkably, with Apple’s new Touch ID function, which replaces the need for a password with scanning your fingerprint, they have already created an elegant solution which should be fool proof, even if only for their more recent devices. However, until biometric authentication makes its way into all devices, I still won’t be surprised if more cases like these occur in the future. No matter how many authentication functions firms add to their services, it doesn’t change the fact that the less tech-savvy of consumers will still have difficulty understanding and making proper use of them.

The Parent

This brings us to Mohamed, the last person on the list. While I’m never fond of siding against the consumer, ultimately, none of this would have ever occurred had he kept his password secure. It would be too harsh to characterize this as “bad parenting” or “negligence." I believe that “ignorance” is a better word to describe this situation, and is the main root cause of this issue.

Judging by him saying he is a “grown man” and his use of “daft” to describe video games, I think that it is safe to assume his interest in them is almost non-existent. This may mean he doesn't have any significant understanding of how they operate. While their numbers are certainly in decline, Mohamed still belongs to a large groip of parents that are completely oblivious to terms like “micro-transactions” and “in-app purchases”. What they don't understand is that they need to do more than simply look for the word “free” on the app download page, before they are content in handing their tablet over to their kids.

It seems like that’s all these mobile games are in many a parent’s eye, just a toy to keep the children distracted for a couple of days. But just as you should always read the small print regarding something important, it wouldn’t be unwise for more parents to become familiar not just with mobile games, but what their children are doing in general.

My verdict

In truth, while I do think that most of the responsibility belongs with the father in this case, I do have a degree of sympathy for people like him. Perhaps they never anticipated this need for caution, no one ran into any issues of this nature back in the days of the Nintendo Gameboy and the Sony PSP, when portable gaming was still at its prime.

Micro-transactions didn’t exist back then. But the world is changing all the time, and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to get left behind.

Published Jan. 31st 2016
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