Thursday, July 16, 2020

Ethical toward children too

Some games are clearly done for children, even if sometimes not officially. A lot of the worst freemium offenders are probably mostly installed by children.

Past the problem of selling unreasonable In-App Purchases, addressed by our Piggybanks, and the quality of the content, that is covered by the books, there is also some potential issues simply at being addressed at kids:

- if the gameplay is addictive for being addictive, transforming playing into a tedious and dumb activity,
- if the game encourages long sessions or enforces them, by example by proposing saves only at checkpoints, or only after some special task,
- if the game is multiplayer but does not safeguard the players.
- ...

As an illustration, we can use the very popular multiplayer, player-driven, game Roblox:

1) It would get no Piggybanks, as it uses a virtual money called Robux that drives pretty much all games, and does not do enough to limit its use reasonably. In our opinion, a game like Roblox should not be free, but maybe subscription-based, paid openly by the parents, without any In-App Purchase. To the defence of Roblox, the current landscape of supposedly Free-to-play games might make offering such option unsustainable: too many persons are used to get things for free, even if they end up not being free when we actually want to benefit from them, and often cost much more at the end.

2) It might get a Book, as a big part of Roblox is about doing its own game. Unfortunately, there are probably many players that only play without doing anything. And most games in Roblox, as we will detail below, are not very adapted

- games are made by players and are a way for their creator to earn Robux. Robux can also be exchanged for real money, though the conversion rate is not really favourable (which is good BTW). There are genuinely very good games in Roblox, and their IAPs are reasonable mostly, though many games offer unlimited purchase of in-game money. So virtual money (Robux) can be used to buy another virtual money...
In consequences, many games use classic freemium techniques to give a repetitive, addictive and rather tedious experience, the goal is to encourage buying different bits of help using Robux.
- It has two big problems with game sessions:
  1. it is a multiplayer game, so the children might want to stay because their friends stay,
  2. the save is managed by the game creator, so might not exist at all, be between tasks, ...
1) is very difficult to enforce, but should probably be linked by parental control. The parent set a limited time, and the game enforces this time. Which would work well with a solution to 2): make the save a default property of any game-> define a set of data proposed to build each game that is systematically saved, also when a player leaves the game.
- but it does quite a lot to safeguard the player: the in-game chat is limited (some words are not allowed), players can report other players, some assets, such as pictures, must be controlled by them before they can be used.

So there are 2 big problems with Roblox: it is addictive and encourages too much playing time, and it relies too heavily on In-App Purchases. But ironically, it is maybe one of the few games that have an excuse for it. The creation of content by the player is driven by their virtual money. Without this virtual economy, Roblox might not exist. So, what solution for such games: limits. As said before, Roblox should not be free, so the robux do not have any link to actual money, and the drive to earn them might still be there, but not as strongly. Also, having the virtual money decoupled from actual money will allow stronger regulation of it in-game. Players won't mind changes if they haven't spent actual money buying it.
Parents should pay for the experience, like the entrance of a park. It shouldn't be the children buying their money with real-world one.
So it is not only Roblox' fault: it would probably not exist if it had tried to be subscription-based or simply not free. Everyone, every parent, should expect to pay to get something.

And, what about a label for that as well? It would be great, but it is much more critical then the Piggybank or the book. There are many ways a game might not be adapted to children. To give a label, there would probably need to be some possibility of control...

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