In Defense of In-App Purchases

Reading Time: 6 minutes

inappI’m not a huge player of computer games these days. I’m a stay-at-home parent with three boys, so I don’t have that much time. If I did, I’d probably use it to catch up on some sleep. Inevitably, though, tablet games are becoming a greater and greater part of my children’s entertainment. As a result, in-app purchases have become increasingly relevant to our family life.

It was easy in my day. You paid your money (often what felt like a vast sum), you got your game. You then played from start to finish (or until you got stuck). Games had everything you needed to play them. If you were lucky, your favorite game was popular enough to warrant an expansion. If you were really lucky that expansion didn’t suck. This was the model until comparatively recently. It was one I understood. Now the game often comes free, but exactly what you get for your lack of money wildly varies from app to app.

Like most parents, I try to keep a tight clutch on the purse strings. I’m happy for my children to enjoy life to the full, as long as it doesn’t actually cost me anything. This is for their own good, and my sanity. My motto is “Give in once and you’ll be buying jellybeans every time you go swimming.” Speaking as parent who twice-weekly buys overpriced jellybeans at his local swimming pool, history is with me on this.

For tablet games, the rule in our house is that as long as it’s age appropriate, then the boys can play (more or less) anything they want. The caveat to this is that they don’t pester me for in-app purchases. The first part works fairly well. Occasionally the boys want a game I don’t fully approve of, but games that rely on an unsavoury gimmick to pull children in, tend to have atrocious game play. The cream rises to the top, getting repeat plays, whilst the trash sinks to the bottom, forgotten much quicker than if I say, “No, you’re not playing that.” The second part of my edict – the caveat about not pestering me for in-app purchases – doesn’t work at all. The more they like the game, the more plaintive requests I’m subjected to.

It probably goes without saying, but it’s worth reiterating here that the first thing to do when you hand over your device to your children is to make sure in-app purchases are switched OFF!

Why can’t everything be like Minecraft?

minecraftMinecraft has to be the dream game for parents. It’s creative, largely non-violent and cooperative. Few things warm my heart more than watching my two boys work together to build their latest waterpark/hotel/rollercoaster. Better yet, you pay a flat fee and you get the whole game. You can play infinitely. It’s the perfect embodiment of the old model of buying games and considering the vast amounts of money it’s made, shows that there is definitely life in the old way of doing things.

At their worst, in-app purchases completely spoil the game; the ones where you can’t do anything of note, without immediately spending. From a parental perspective these aren’t too bad. If there’s nothing to play, your children never gain enough interest to pester you for cash to top up their experience. More insidious are the apps where you pay to gain extra options or complete a building faster. Success in these games is no longer governed by aptitude or practice, merely by how much you’re prepared to spend. Compared with Minecraft’s egalitarian, one price for all approach, these games foster a rivalry centred around money, and can become an extension of the playground.  Once again, the children who have access to the most money have all the cool stuff.

To clarify, I’m not against spending money on apps. I’m not in the ‘everything on the internet should be free’ brigade. If developers and software houses have spent money bringing these games to fruition, they should be fully compensated for doing so. I’d just rather they didn’t do it by hitting their players over the head and running off with their wallets.

Fill your team, empty your bank account

My boys love FIFA 15 Ultimate Team (the latest incarnation of a long running soccer franchise, endorsed by the sport’s governing body). Years ago, when you bought the game for your PC or console it would cost in the region of £40 ($60). On the tablet version it’s possible to buy ‘FIFA Coins’ in quantities that cost up to £80 ($120). It is daylight robbery. The prices on this type of purchase should be capped. Once you have reached a certain spending level, everything available in the game should be unlocked. As it is, the way the game works, you could easily burn through your $120 and soon want to spend more. It’s preying on the young and easily manipulated.

But it’s not all bad. 

Spending at this level is probably extreme and hopefully rare. While I’m not happy about handing my children an obvious source of pester power, games with in-app purchases can teach them some valuable lessons. In FIFA, if you just play the game, you earn coins, with which you can buy the players and contracts you need to build a strong team. It takes much longer than if you inject extra cash, but it can be done.

simcity build it
The new experience of paying for my game ad infinitum.

Another popular game in our house is SimCity Buildit. This uses the app-classic, “complete your build by using coins” model, with coins being available to buy using real-world money. On the way to school one morning, I overhead my son talking to his friend about his latest building project. He said, something like,

“I can spend 2000 coins to complete it now, or I can just wait 8 hours, and it will be finished. Why would I pay, when all I have to do is be patient and I get it for nothing. This way I’ll still have the money in case I really need it.”

First, I was struck by what a sensible and intelligent boy I was bringing up, and how much he sounded like his father. Then it occurred to me that in-app purchases, something that I considered to by an unnecessary bane in my life, actually have their uses. They were teaching my children the concept of delayed gratification. My son had take on board that, yes he could have it now, but it came with a cost. If he waited a bit, he could have exactly the same thing, and then more.

In a world where instant gratification is taking over, this is a valuable lesson to learn and a difficult one to teach. I don’t want my sons to grow up thinking it’s reasonable to queue overnight for the latest technology. I don’t want them demanding the latest must-have game in November, when they should really wait for Christmas. I want them to understand, that yes, they might really want a brand new something, right now, but if they wait six months they’ll get the same thing, probably for less. I would like them to feel the sense of accomplishment from having saved, worked and waited for the thing they really want.

Clearly, building a tower-block made of pixels doesn’t constitute hard graft, but it’s a start. In their attempts to persuade my children to separate me from my (wife’s) hard-earned cash, in-app purchases have actually given us all a learning opportunity. This revelation hasn’t made my boys ask me any less for trinkets of a digital nature, but it does make refusing them just that little bit easier, and gives me the opportunity to tie it back to real life parallels with saving money and investing time. There’s even one final silver lining, when I do unexpectedly relent, slipping them a couple of pounds (dollars) so they can buy the soccer star they are desperately after, I am become a hero; the Lionel Messi of parenting.

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