Children accidentally spend thousands of parents' money on games

  • A recent report on children accidentally emptying their parents' bank accounts playing games has raised fresh calls for UK regulation on in-app purchases in games aimed at minors.

    The games industry is now the biggest entertainment industry on the planet, generating more profit than movies and music combined. Home consoles such as the Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 have sold millions of units in the UK, and around 95% of those under 35 now have a smartphone capable of playing some mobile games.

    A growing number of games in recent years have included microtransaction stores that allow players to buy items for real world cash to help them in the game, and some provide items for cash in gambling-style loot boxes or booster packs. The debate over gambling mechanics in games has been ongoing for several years, with Belgium outright banning the practice last year.

    BBC News ran a piece last week following the story of one family whose bank account was accidentally emptied by their kids buying booster packs full of players on Fifa 19 on the Nintendo Switch, sparking an intense online discussion on the issue and renewed calls for regulation to prevent this kind of issue happening to consumers in the future.

    While Fifa is rated for ages 3 and up, it contains a gambling style microtransaction system that lets you buy booster packs full of random footballers for cash. The parents had bought their kids one booster pack as a gift but inadvertantly left the bank card attached to the account, and the kids figured out how to buy more. It wasn't until the couple's bank card was declined that they spotted hundreds of pounds of charges on their account.

    Nintendo provided a full refund of all of the charges on request, but not every company is that responsible. Other more damning stories have come out throughout the week since that piece was written, including a family with a disabled vulnerable adult with severe learning difficulties who was reportedly tricked into spending £3160 on an iPad game named Hidden Artifacts sold via Apple's app store. The person is legally an adult at 22 years old but reportedly has "the approximate cognitive ability of a seven-year-old child," and Apple refused to refund any of the charges.

    Another parent reported how his five year old son with autism was "completely inconsolable" after discovering he had accidentally made £300 of purchases in Mini Golf King, a phone game on the Google Play store. The game is rated PEGI 3 with a note that it offers in-app purchases, but the kid believed he was spending pretend coins and didn't realise he was making cash purchases.

    While most platforms have parental controls and security in place to ensure accidental purchases aren't made, these stories have nonetheless prompted renewed calls for better industry self-regulation and ratings practices. Some are also calling for robust new refund laws for in-app purchases in games to make platform owners such as Google and Apple responsible for purchases made on their system by minors and vulnerable adults rather than passing the responsibility to game publishers or developers.

    Source: BBC News, BBC News

    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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