Beware: Free games come bundled with in-app catch

Beware: Free games come bundled with in-app catch

Beware: Free games come bundled with in-app catch
When it come to choosing video games for the kids, 40 per cent of parents are not confident about what they are buying, according to a recent research by the Game chain store.

Certainly, identifying best-value and most appropriate games for the family is more complex than it first appears. In-app purchases sell players additional content during the course of play. They can change the total price of a title substantially and fly under the radar of parents who assume games are a one-off cost.

In fact, concerns about games that ‘exploited children’s inexperience, vulnerability and credulity’ triggered the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to publish a set of best practice principles for online and app-based games last year. Since then there have been a number of positive changes. Apple’s App Store has swapped its description on the purchase button for games that incur charges from ‘Free’ to the blunter, but more realistic, ‘Get’.

Similarly, the Google App Store now uses ‘Download’ and Nintendo cites its free games as ‘Free to Try’. Going further, Apple now lists the top in-app purchases for each game. The high profits that Game of War makes are understandable now that we can see its £79.99 in-app purchase is the most popular.

The Competition and Markets Authority extended the OFT report with a guide for parents advising they check device settings before handing it to a child and keep an eye on bills. Parents should now expect games to provide ‘all the important information — including how to ask questions or complain — before [their] child starts playing’.

Additional console game content is also increasingly tied to physical toys. Skylanders, Disney Infinity and newcomer Lego Dimensions each link character and level upgrades to toy sales. That they are described as ‘collectables’ discloses their potentially high cost, but parents should know that starter packs provide everything needed to complete the games. Additional toys are optional extras rather than must-haves.

Companies push value angle
At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, both Skylanders and Disney Infinity pushed the value angle with cheaper downloadable versions that reuse old peripherals. Disney Infinity went further this year by abandoning its ‘blind purchase’ foil packs and offering better character compatibility across new Star Wars levels.

Over-spending isn’t the only pitfall. Appropriateness of content, and violence in particular, can cause parenting headaches. The awareness gap here is more surprising as excellent advice has been available for some years. The PEGI (Pan-European Game Information) system offers simple traffic-light age badges. However, some of this confusion stems from the UK’s history of multiple video-game rating agencies.

Gianni Zamo, spokesman for the Video Standards Council (VSC), admits “it needs to establish more in the way of communicating its ratings to video game consumers”. He also points to the additional consumer information that “describes precisely what the pertinent content issues in a game are and how they are presented”. On Batman: Arkham Knight, for example, there is a description of the ‘infrequent scenes of violence towards defenceless persons. In one, a man is tied up and beaten across the face by an armed thug’.

Ukie, the games industry trade body, partners with VSC to run, which provides video guides on high-profile games.

For Dr Jo Twist, CEO of Ukie, the message is simple: “Children should not be playing games that contain content that is not appropriate for their age. Parents need to take the time to understand the games that their children are playing, and be aware of the age rating symbols that accompany games.”

This is a good message, although parents can still be tripped up. Provisional ratings applied to marketing materials sometimes remain on store shelves displaying different age ratings to the final product. This was the case for Batman: Arkham Knight, provisionally a PEGI 16 but raised to PEGI 18 before release.

Games are becoming an integral part of childhood. But assessing value and violence remains complex and needs time and involvement from parents.
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