"Free-to-play" smartphone games are designed to give a player a sense of accomplishment in just a few minutes of chasing Pokemon, building tiny towers or sending angry birds flying through the air.
While these apps can be a lot of fun, almost every free-to-play game has a catch. Players will either have to spend countless hours doing mindless tasks in order to move forward, or pay real money to speed up their digital achievements.
Games makers create algorithms that target players based on their practices, in order to encourage them to spend more money. And, players are spending millions of dollars to play games they could continue for free.
The result can be a seriously expensive habit.
Getting hooked and going broke
Game designers are counting on big spenders, or “whales,” to pour hundreds of dollars each month into their gameplay, and some of those players admit to going thousands of dollars into debt over a digital addiction.
Yes, addiction. Just like drinking and smoking, video games give our brains a boost of pleasure, which can lead to an expensive and unhealthy lifestyle. The World Health Organization has classified gaming disorder as a real condition, and South Korea even has rehab centers for it.
Many games introduce features that encourage gambling. Namely, "loot boxes."
What's in the box?
A loot box is a digital mystery box that players must pay real money for. If they get lucky, they may find a rare item that will give them a huge advantage in their gameplay. As with gambling, the odds of actually winning those items are slim to none.
Console games, like the Playstation 4 Star Wars game Battlefront II, came under fire for introducing loot boxes that contained items that were necessary for playing. It was nearly impossible for players to beat the game, unless they gambled their hard-earned cash.
The game developers removed the loot boxes after public backlash, but they remain a feature in smartphone games.
The risks to kids
Loot boxes in games that kids play encourage children to gamble before they even learn the value of a dollar. And the wagering can lure children into too much gaming, which can lead to poor impulse control, bad grades and a lack of social skills.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents lay down steadfast rules for kids 6 and up that limit the use of smartphones, computers and gaming consoles — even just something as simple as demanding that homework be finished first.
And parents should never link a child's game to a credit card. Instead, buy gift cards for iTunes or the Google Play Store, and use those as the primary payment. This method allows you to set a budget for your kid's in-game purchases.
An opportunity for a money lesson
Consider teaching children the value of money by letting them earn gift cards for gaming, as their allowance. If they insist on using the cards for loot boxes or other digital items, require that they notch an achievement first, like getting an A on a test.
They may quickly learn after a few failed attempts at digital gambling that it’s far more satisfying to want tangible prizes or real-life experiences instead.
If kids seem to have a fixation on loot boxes that won’t go away, don’t be afraid to seek professional help from an expert on gambling addictions.