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The Hidden Costs of Gaming

Video games are a popular pastime for young people, but parents should be aware that more and more online games are creating ways to incorporate payable features after the game has been purchased. Even if a game or app was free to download, there can be many in-game purchases advertised to the player, like cosmetic upgrades, “pay-to-win” features and “loot crates”.

Star Wars Battlefront II is the latest edition in a popular series of Star Wars games and has faced immense criticism from players over the gambling-like loot crates and reliance on additional costs to play the game. In order to progress through the game, players need to obtain “Star Cards”, which grant special bonuses and have four different rarity levels. Star Cards can be found in loot crates, which players can buy using “Crystals”, an in-game currency that costs real life money to buy. Another currency, “Credits” also buys loot crates, but players earn them much more slowly by playing the game, or credits can be won lottery-style in the loot crates themselves.

After countless complaints that the loot crate system felt like gambling for upgrades, the developers announced that the most valuable Star Cards and weapons can only be obtained by gameplay. However, most of the Star Cards can still only be won in the loot crates.

Another popular online game Counter Strike: Global Offensive has the option to buy and sell upgrades for in-game “skins”, or cosmetic changes to weapons and outfits. Players can sell rare skins that they come across for thousands of dollars in online auctions, while some websites let players gamble their skins or in-game currency for the chance to win rarer items.

However, some of the worst examples of hidden expenses are mobile Free-to-Play (FtP) games, wherein users are granted access to a fully functional game but must pay microtransactions to access additional content. The most popular example would be the Angry Birds franchise, which includes an in-game currency bought with real money, loot crates, daily roulette bonuses and “double-or-nothing” bets, as well as aesthetic upgrades.

Gambling for Young People

Concern is growing in Australia and other countries that these features are normalising gambling behaviours for young players. US Senator Chris Lee called Star Wars Battlefront II a “Star Wars-themed online casino, designed to lure kids into spending money”. Furthermore, in responding to an email from a concerned gamer, a representative from the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation stated that these concerns do constitute gambling by the definition of the Victorian Legislation.

There needs to be considerations as to whether the presence of gambling-like features in games may be normalising gambling behaviour in young people. Dr Daniel King, a senior researcher at the University of Adelaide spoke with Triple J’s Hack program regarding similarities to gambling in video games:

“Between the ages of 12 – 25 [is] a very vulnerable time for the development of addictions, so if people also have a set of vulnerabilities, they’re more prone to developing addictions at that particular point in their life.”

What Can Parents Do?

It is recommended that wherever possible, devices are set up with an “Ask to Buy” function. This sends a request to the parent whenever someone attempts to download an app, which parents can then elect to approve or deny. You can find information about activating the “Ask to Buy” function here.

Similar purchase approval measures can be set up on Google’s Play Store here, and Parental Controls which enable parents to set age restrictions on any apps that are downloaded to a device can be found here.

The PlayStation Network (PSN) has a system of Master Accounts and Sub Accounts. Adults must create a Master Account and then create a Sub Account for children to use with customisable spending limits. If a child is using a Master Account that they have created for themselves they are in breach of the Terms of Service. You can read more about the PSN here.

The Microsoft Xbox has a much simpler system whereby parents create a passkey for all purchases. You can learn how to set this up here.

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