Monday, 10 September 2012

Gambling For Kids: A How To Guide

Children are stupid and make poor decisions

So a little while ago I gave a talk on a panel at the Children’s Media Festival. It was called ‘Taking Candy From a Baby’ and it was about using free-to-play and IAP techniques in apps aimed at children. That nice Stuart Dredge man from The Guardian did writing which mentioned it and there’s even a picture where a tiny dot is me! I did a proud and told my mum and she did one too. 

I’m so humble, I self-deprecate myself.
The thrust of the talk was that free-to-play uses a lot of manipulative techniques to get people to pay for things. It aims to do so in a way that they will willingly rationalise and defend, but it’s not from a kind and lovely place. It’s not a bad and evil place either, it’s just a particular way of doing business and places a lot of emphasis on making creative and commercial concerns work together. It has plenty of upsides - try before you buy, pay what you like and ensure constant support for your favourite titles.

That said, both the game design and behavioural economics powering the exploding world of free-to-play are manipulative things. And while it’s fine to give adults choices and let them choose between those choices - even if you are loading the behavioural dice in your favour - doing the same thing with kids is not so fine. They don’t have the same cognitive development, are wildly less able to make those decisions, and depending on their age, may well have literally no understanding of the value of the money they are spending anyway. Asking children to pester their parents to spend money to cure a sick kitten, as Pet Shop Story does, is as bad and wrong as game design gets.

I, on the other hand, have 32 pairs of shoes

So fremium for kids seems to be a non-starter unless you are a horrible insect-like being made from poison and murderers. Right?

Well here’s a thing. Panini Sticker books are gambling for kids. There’s no doubt that’s a fair representation of them. Collect stickers! Oh god collect them now! But do so by giving us money for random stickers you may or may not need or want! Swap them with your friends by all means, but lets be honest, some stickers will just be rare. So you have to be lucky. And you are not lucky. So buy more!

Could you help? I seem to have a horse stuck in my paw.
Now while parents probably aren’t exactly keen on sticker collecting - my parents certainly weren’t - nor is it regarded with the same suspicion and hostility as IAP. Buying packs of random things at 50p a go in order to cure your OCD is fine. Gambling for children is fine - so long as it has footballers on the front and glue on the back and no-one thinks about it all that much.

And there’s more. Penny falls machines sit close to slot machines in the pleasure gardens and arcades of various seas-side resorts. But it’s fine to give the kids a handful of coins to push into the glittering piles of treasure with the hope and aim of claiming back even more. So they are definitely gambling too, and this time with actual more-money-than-you-started-with as the motivation, but again, they’re also fine and good entertainment and pretty and hey kid, here’s some change, knock yourself out.

And who could possibly object to the humble claw machine? The claw! Because you're alive, you've seen Toy Story and you laughed at that bit because it was funny. Ha ha! The claw! Shame really, because claw machines are completely evil and must be destroyed.

I bet I gamble less than you

Sticker books, penny falls and claw machines all have a great deal in common with the IAP and free-to-play world. And, indeed, are considerably harsher in many ways. The things you buy in a game might well be virtual, but within that world they almost always have hugely more use than a sticker does in the real world. And sticker packs are usually located at exactly the right place to calm an annoying child on a trip to the supermarket - they wear their pester-power intentions proudly. Behave like a not-bastard and Daddy will buy you some stickers when we get to the end. Presuming your children are old enough to grasp the principles of delayed-gratification, you have yourself a whole mess of behavioural economics and no mistake.

These are a few of my favourite things.
And it works. Panini alone print around 6 billion stickers a year. 1 billion packs. 50p a pack. That’s quite a lot of numbers. Quite a lot of money. Quite a lot of money from children learning how thrilling gambling can be.

Why is that ok, but PAY TO STOP THIS CAT THAT YOU LOVE FROM DYING HORRIBLY is not? Being horribly manipulated is unpleasant, of course it is, but it doesn’t actually teach you anywhere near as much in the way of negative behaviours. It isn’t telling you that gambling is fun and that you should do it. It’s not showing you how you can make money into more money using nothing but luck! Except that you are not so lucky. It’s vile, unquestionably vile, but it at least has the decency to ring-fence its evil and malicious behaviours to itself.

copy goes here copy goes here copy g

The fear of the new is undoubtedly a factor. Particular dances, comics, Elvis Presley’s nethers, specific trousers, videogames, taking loads of drugs, a different kind of videogames; all these have caused the older generation to declare that the younger generation were a write-off and should probably be catapulted into the sea. They were wrong in all cases, or at least I am still alive and have seen other alive people recently, so we can’t have gone too far wrong.

An old person, chilling out.
More, and an off-shoot of the above thought process, this is about the real and the virtual and control. Panini stickers are bought in the real world, by a parent, or by a child with cash given to the child by the parent. Penny Falls machines are yet more real. They run on real money and give out real money. Their value is clear and visible and entirely under the control of the parent.

IAP, like the ringtone subscriptions that last made money disappear magically from parental bank accounts, break this connection. If you want to make an IAP you (largely) have to do so electronically. The parent gives their child indirect access to their bank account or credit card. Children don’t usually have access to electronic money, and reasonably so - it’s much harder to understand the implications of a number getting smaller than it isto have to give away those heavy, shiny, strange-smelling coins.

One day we will have a world without coin stink

However, much as it might be nice to think that we can go back to pushing metal discs across a shop counter in exchange for some reformed sugar and a series of brightly coloured objects, money doesn’t work like that anymore. Mobile phones on contract are access to a parental bank account. Still-active passwords in an iOS device are access to a parental bank account. We need to face and take advantage of the virtualisation of money, as do the banking industry and the providers of the entertainment than children crave.

I am not cool with this.
It’s not a problem, it is a challenge. Giving children access to more meaningful budgeting experiences is entirely possible. Letting parents control the funds their children have and let them learn how to spend it is an opportunity to create a more financially savvy generation, and that’s an opportunity we shouldn’t miss out on. It’s a rather better choice than teaching kids about the joys of gambling, don’t you think?


  1. It's true - IAPs became a lot less stressful to me once I'd taught my 6 yr olds to budget virtual money like real-world money. The challenge for kids is when real-world currency is hidden behind a virtual currency as financial comprehension just becomes too mathematically challenging.

    I think I'd rather see kids IAPs listed in their native currency, so they stand a better chance of understanding how much they're spending. Then, deciding whether to spend 20p keeping the kitten's life support machine running or buying some bigger guns for Jetpack Joyride is something they can do themselves.

    1. Do you think it is right for your children to be asked for real money to pay to keep a pretend kitten "alive"? If so, I'll forward you my details and a load of virtual kittens who's lives I can save right now for the right price... ;)

  2. Interesting. Only last night I was considering taking my boy to play the penny falls machines in order to learn about the pointlessness of gambling. Its such an obviously weighted thing that once you've done it once (or twice) you realise that gambling is just another form of entertainment you pay for. At least thats what I learnt as a kid. Hopefully he will too, otherwise we are in big trouble!

  3. A lot to think about there - very good article!
    I have a 5 year old daughter who plays a lot of these types of games on my iPhone. Every other day she is pestering me to pay 59p to unlock extra toppings for her ice cream. It took a while, but I realised that actually that 59p was going to give her days and days of pleasure. Paying £1.99 for a magazine because it had a crappy toy on the front, would bring minutes.

    She now understands that those IAPs cost real pennies - just like the magazine does, so when she gets them, they are a treat.

    Like many things, it is down to education!

  4. I very much like the 'real world pricing' idea for kids apps. There's always the argument that many apps aren't *just* for kids but *also* for kids and little doubt that you'll make more money by making the abstraction, but it would be an honourable thing to do.

    And I have no fear that kids will turn out entirely fine regardless. They absolutely always have. But maybe this lot could turn out better and that's a thought to warm even the cockles of my cockleless heart.

  5. I feel you man. It's because of those extra-content-laden games that we adults have this lingering feeling that kids are starting to have less regard for money. They might already decide to learn how to play poker because of IAPs and we wouldn't even know.