The Dark Side of Microtransactions

The Dark Side of Microtransactions

Smurf Village is a social game for the iPhone by Capcom Mobile. The game is free-to-play, but as is the norm with social games, players can perform microtransactions and buy a special breed of currency with real-world money. In the case of Smurf Village, players can buy “smurfberries” to help them purchase special items and bonuses.

That’s exactly what one eight-year-old player did–but she went on a bit of a bender and bought $1,400 worth of the berries. Needless to say, the girls’ parents were very Smurfed off.

Apple has since refunded the money, and Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor contacted the Federal Trade Commission with his concerns about in-app purchases and their potential to confuse kids. “Children, in particular, appear to be confused by in-app purchases, leaving parents with an unexpected bill for virtual smurfberries, snowflakes or other products,” he wrote. “In the end, it would appear that these app companies may be the ones having all the fun and games at our children’s expense.”

It’s tempting to just roll our eyes at the situation and mumble “Let the parents handle it,” but it would hurt Apple to turn its back on the situation. This isn’t the first time a little kid has accidentally indulged in a bit of the blue stuff: Last December, a four-year-old in New York bought about $70 worth of smurfberries without really understanding the consequences of pushing the “Buy” button in-game. Games like Smurf Village are tailored towards very little kids who can’t be expected to know that every button in a game is safe to touch over and over, except for one button that will cost mommy and daddy a heck of a lot of money and throw them into a fit. In other words, Apple might see fewer parents buy iPhones and iPads to entertain their kids for fear of sky-high phone bills and credit card statements.

Apple should remind parents that it’s not a good idea to keep their phones and iPads signed into the App Store, as it doesn’t take much for a kid to run up a tab. More importantly, Apple should also remind parents that just handing an iPhone to a toddler without kid-proofing it first isn’t a smart idea. Children learn how to use technology with remarkable speed, but safely navigating Apps and the internet in general isn’t an instinctive behavior. A parent can be forgiven for thinking their four-year-old isn’t going to run into any hardcore content in a game about the Smurfs, but they also need to take the time to navigate through the game, observe how microtransactions work, then explain to their child that certain parts of the game require parental permission.

Video games are changing so rapidly that teaching kids about proper play is almost as important as teaching them about nutrition, manners, and the downside of taking candy from strangers. It benefits children and parents to learn about microtransactions together: Apple probably won’t be covering too many more $1,400 bills.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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