Many youth enjoy sports video games as a recreational and social activity. However, are video games companies unfairly taking advantage of adolescent development? As youth enter their teens, they transition from games designed for children to those designed for adults. While video game companies comply with laws to limit mature content and protect children’s identities, one area remains largely unregulated: the upsell. Video game companies take advantage of adolescents’ developing self-control in order to profit from them.
To illustrate the point, let’s take a look at the FIFA series (EA Sports). At its simplest, the game seems pretty harmless. Electronic Arts rates it as “E” for “everyone,” and Common Sense Media approves the game for ages 8+.
Common Sense Media's rating of FIFA 16
Out of the box (or download), the game allows the player to choose their favorite, real-world club and play against teams in various international leagues. Kids get to improve their skills, access greater levels of challenge, and create fun matchups that one would not often see in real life. Some parents, therefore, feel only positively about the game, particularly when compared with games that include violent or sexual content.
At this level, frustration is the biggest potential drawback. Kids may feel challenged by the limitations of controller-based simulation of real-world phenomena. In real soccer, players use their whole bodies to make successful passes, shots, and defensive moves. Particularly for a beginner, hard work and focus quickly lead to improvement. In FIFA, you have the controller. While EA Sports has invented many button combinations to create different types of plays, these are a far cry from the biomechanics of the human body. When kids exclaim, “How did I miss that shot!”, they may be expressing some subconscious blurring of physical and virtual experience. In other words, luck plays a much larger role than skill in the simulated game, a fact that kids may not fully appreciate.
Simulation is another subtle concept that youth may have difficulty grasping. Sports based video games use “artificial intelligence” to simulate human decision making. A kid can only control one player at a time—the software automates actions of the other 10 players. Not surprisingly (at least to an adult), automated players often do irrational things. AI can only approximate human thought, and so virtual players often make ill-timed runs, don’t defend consistently, and generally fail to sense the flow of the game and the intent of the one human-controlled player on the field. Kids can get extremely frustrated when their players don’t behave as expected.
EA Sports boldly monetizes all aspects of the game, embedding advertisements like in real contests. On the one hand, the effect is authentic. On the other hand, companies are advertising their wares to the player, and your child is absorbing all of those messages while playing! If you have doubts about this, just ask any young soccer fan whether they have heard of Etihad and what it is.
Electronic Arts surely understands the value of blurring the lines between reality and simulation. Each year, non-game play animation grows more realistic, and EA and FIFA product logos appear at real games.
Real foreground, virtual background
What effects do idealized simulations of people have on young kids? Do kids conceive of players as real people with emotions, camaraderie, and team concept, when they spend so much time playing as their avatars? I hesitate to speculate and would love to read some real research on this topic.
Were youth to experience only these challenges with FIFA, I would not feel so critical about the game. However, the game takes advantage of adolescent disposition in other ways. Kids are social. Interactions with friends are crucially important, perhaps of higher value than anything else. Not surprisingly, pre-teens quickly learn from their friends that that they can play each other in FIFA. Were the game completely fair, social play might be a great thing. However, kids can choose whether to play as a stock team or as FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT). The “ultimate” moniker brings a component of fantasy gameplay into the game. One starts with a team of basic, lesser-known players. Through gameplay and wins, the player earns coins that one then uses to purchase more talented players.
FUT requires an online account (XBox Live, for instance). These are restricted by COPPA, which protects the personal information of youth under age 13. The game console company (e.g., Microsoft) is required to obtain parental consent for youth to create an online account. Such companies also typically provide parental controls to hide children’s identifying information and restrict them from making in-app purchases. However, parental controls are notoriously difficult to use, and many parents just go with default settings or remove them entirely to avoid the hassle. In addition, the default setup includes linking a credit card to the account in order to pay the $60 annual fee.
Imagine yourself as a kid (maybe even your kid). If you played your friends over and over, would you prefer to win? Would you put in hours of gameplay in order to rack up more coins and improve one’s skills? Youth certainly do. The urge to play with friends, compete, and win is very strong for some children.
Here’s where the dynamic becomes perverse. What if you could buy better players (instead of playing for hours) and then beat your friends? If you had the money, would you do it? EA Sports has two forms of virtual currency: points and coins. Points are purchased with real money, whereas coins are earned through gameplay. Either allows one to open “packs” of virtual players. As one reviewer writes, “think of FIFA Points as the easier way out. You’ll quickly amass talented players, but your wallet will take a hit.” EA Sports uses typical advertising techniques to encourage urgency and spending.
Buying packs is a lot like gambling. On second thought, it is gambling. Open enough packs, and you are bound to luck into a high-quality player eventually. The chance of drawing a great player in one pack is small, and the probability increases as you open more packs. The psychology of gambling is well-documented. “One more hand, and I’ll win the big one.” Youth may not be allowed to enter a casino, but they can gamble with real money in FIFA and other sports video games. Open a child account using a credit card, and now the kid can blow big money opening packs.
Parents would do well to understand these qualities of this “E for everyone” game. Playing against the computer or a friend who comes over is fun, to a point. The game entices kids to buy the online subscription in order to play against friends on the Internet and enter tournaments. Through upsell techniques, your child becomes part of a very adult dynamic, which requires either uncommon self-control or an usually involved parent to avoid being taken advantage of. Parents new to gaming should be aware that upsell is part of the game, and they may have to be the “uncool” parent and say no to their kids’ requests or risk exposing them to this abuse. Navigating parental controls is an enormous challenge. One must discover more effective techniques, such as disconnecting the credit card from the online account and buying your child gift cards instead.
To make matters worse, FIFA’s market for virtual players has operated as a true economy at times. With millions of players and transactions, EA Sports has from time to time offered a “transfer market,” in which gamers list their players for sale and prices are allowed to fluctuate. Last year, kids would casually remark the “transfer market has crashed again,” as player prices fluctuated wildly, increasing or decimating the value of their club’s roster and making recent transactions look ridiculous. Furthermore, an all-powerful governing body (EA Sports) can change the rules at any time. Accountability to the populace, essential to a functioning government, is hardly evident in the relationship between game vendor and consumer.
It gets even worse. Over the years, entrepreneurs have developed ways to cheat the coin and transfer markets. A black market emerged, third-party websites where users could buy coins and/or players at dramatically reduced prices. The black market caused both competition and prices to skyrocket, putting those who played fair at a disadvantage and creating enormous incentives to cheat. EA Sports has periodically shut down the entire transfer market, putting a temporary stop to the cheating and also causing widespread upset. This year, EA has reopened the transfer market with rules intended to suppress bad behavior. The irony is that EA is trying to both monetize the game as much as possible while maintaining some measure of control over this community.
Let’s pause here for a moment and consider the life lessons for young gamers.
- Persistence and effort pay off, to a point.
- You can buy or cheat your way to success.
- Gambling can pay off big, and it can also hurt.
- Those with power control.
It may be worth reminding ourselves that the game is rated 8+ by Common Sense Media, and COPPA only restricts online accounts for children under 13. Parents would do well to tread with caution or prepare yourself to console an upset child and pay a giant credit card bill!