Young hearts run free / by James Kelleher


Mark Sorrell wrote a piece for the Guardian this week, Freemium games are a chance to teach kids how to manage their money. The tl;dr version: he argues that the public resistance to sprinkling children’s apps with in-app purchases and deceptive pseudocurrencies is predicated on a mix of mass hysteria and ignorance. What’s more, he says, by denying kids access to the joys of the freemium model, we’re leaving them ill-prepared to navigate the complex financial landscape that they will face as adults. The whole article is self-serving horseshit. 

Sorrell has, by his own admission, a significant conflict of interest when he calls for us to look fondly on freemium games for kids. He earns a living as a “freemium game design and behaviour change consultant”. Just so everybody’s clear, the behaviour that he wants to change – in the context of free-to-play games – is your reluctance to hand over your money for in-app purchases or other microtransactions. The claim that he’s looking for ways to do that that aren’t “evil or silly or bad” looks shaky a few paragraphs later when he refers to children, only half-jokingly, as “tiny, poorly-behaved salespeople inserted deep into customers’ homes”.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with freemium games, but their current market domination – go take a look at the top grossing charts on the App Store – disproportionately rewards publishers who spend a lot of development effort honing their psychological manipulation techniques to coax cash out of a small minority of users. The child-monetisation-industrial complex hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory when it comes to self-regulation either, as last year’s Office of Fair Trading report showed when it threw up plenty of examples where “children’s inexperience, vulnerability and credulity” were being gleefully exploited. 

Full disclosure: my feelings on this topic are also highly compromised, given that we develop up-front paid apps, aka “Ye Olde Worlde Weirding Way” (© 2014 Barry Meade). We looked at in-app purchases and decided early on that they were by and large a shitty thing to put in apps for kids. There are exceptions, and some developers do it well enough, but we’re a bunch of stubborn old geezers and it really didn’t make much sense for us. 

The centrepiece of Sorrell’s argument is society’s supposed double standard when it comes to real-world physical collectibles like Panini sticker packs on the one hand, and digital unlocks on the other. He says they both teach kids important financial lessons, so why do we tolerate one and revile the other? I see them both as pretty exploitative ways to strip-mine children for revenue, but my pompous do-goodery aside, he’s missed a crucial educational difference between the two: the potential for trade. Kids can set up spontaneously complex marketplaces when faced with sweets (or Panini stickers or LEGO minifigs or loom bands) that they want from the tiny freshly-minted broker on the other side of class. Good luck trading an in-app purchase.

The notion that the best route to teaching children about the manipulation and exploitation that they’ll eventually face in the adult world is to manipulate and exploit them is dishonest garbage. For an antidote to Sorrell’s cynicism, check out this polemic call to prioritise creativity above profit maximisation (HT to Mark O'Gara) – Mobile is burning, and free-to-play binds the hands of devs who want to help