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Monetizing Children
by Ramin Shokrizade on 06/20/13 03:40:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

As uncomfortable as this subject makes me, I feel that as a community we need to start discussing the subject of how we sell games to children. A number of major studios have been asking me questions related to this under NDA, but I think this conversation needs to also be public. For brevity sake I am not attempting to make this a scientific-grade paper, but I do need to introduce some research because there are many layers involved in this discussion.

First I would recommend the cover article in the May 20, 2013 edition of TIME Magazine. The part that most interested me was the finding that the Millennial Generation exhibits three times the rate of narcissism as any previously studied generation. While the exact source is unknown, I don't think it is our rapidly changing diet of food, but our rapidly changing diet of media that is the primary source.

While I think everyone will feel confident pointing fingers at the social mechanisms that children learn from sites such as MySpace and Facebook, I have to believe that interactive media is also to blame. It would be just a bit too convenient to blame “the other guys” when games have such a profound effect on learning.

With infrastructure decaying in the USA, in the form of just about every sort of infrastructure you can think of (roads, bridges, dams, schools, etc.), you could say previous generations were a bit selfish in not leaving the same opportunities to their children. With real incomes going down. budget deficits rising, and borrowing from the social security fund putting its integrity in doubt, you could say that the selfishness of previous generations was unprecedented. Finding out that this trend might be increasing by even 10% in the latest generation would be catastrophic news. Finding out that it is increasing by 200% is, well, a good time to reflect on the future of our species.

Numerous studies have shown that interactive media affects brain development. Some studies show positive results, some show negative results, and some show both. What is certain, is that exposure to interactive media changes the brain. What is also certain, at least in 2013, is that we really don't know how or how much yet

The Role of the Prefrontal Cortex

Here I am going to use the US Department of Health and Human Services and the wiki on “Maturity (Psychological)” as references.

The Prefrontal Cortex is the slowest part of the brain to develop as the brain generally develops from “back to front”.

This brain region gives an individual the capacity to exercise “good judgment” when presented with difficult life situations. Brain research indicating that brain development is not complete until near the age of 25, refers specifically to the development of the prefrontal cortex.3

What this means is that the capacity to make sound long term judgments is not just a psychological state, but a biological state that is age dependent.

The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for higher cognitive functions such as planning, decision-making, judgment and reasoning, develops and matures most rapidly during early adolescence and into the early 20s.[17] Accompanying the growth of the pre-frontal cortex is continued synaptic pruning (the trimming of rarely used synapses) as well as an increased myelination of nerve fibers in the brain, which serve to insulate and speed up signal transmission between neurons. The incomplete development of this process contributes to the finding that adolescents use their brain less broadly than do adults when asked to inhibit a response and show less cross-talk (communication across diverse regions of the brain).[18] The brain’s “cross-talk” may be related to decision-making concerning risk-taking, with one study of American adolescents finding delayed reaction time and decreased spread across brain regions in a task asking them to determine whether a dangerous action is a good idea or not.[19] Steinberg observes that there is close overlap in the activated brain regions for socioemotional and reward information, which may pose a challenge when making decisions in the most high-risk peer contexts.[20] One study found that preference for small immediate rewards over larger long-term rewards was associated with increased activation with regions primarily responsible for socioemotional decision-making.[21]

Okay now if were to consider the design technique that Zynga describes as “fun pain”, the idea is to inflict some very uncomfortable situation on a player in their game, and then offer to remove that situation in return for money. While the vast majority of adults will make the assessment that it is in their best interest to not spend the money and to just exit the application that is designed to hurt them, it is biologically harder to come to this conclusion if the decision maker is a child.

Coercive Monetization of Children

Now if I was a company that wanted to sell a product to consumers that most adults would correctly identify as being a bad idea, what would I do? If I could market my product to humans that were too young to correctly evaluate the long term effects of using my product, that would make things a lot easier. Marketers are adept at this, and we already saw this with the Camel cigarette commercials that had Joe Camel in the form of a cool cartoon character. It took a generation to regulate the end of children being targeted by the tobacco industry.

Now we have Facebook which has become a staple of childhood socialization. A child's social worth is largely determined by their mark on Facebook. I find it extremely difficult to believe that the almost universal use of coercive monetization models on Facebook is a coincidence. I find it even more unlikely that the almost universal use of cartoonish and child-like characters (with their large heads and big eyes) in Facebook games is a coincidence. Ten years after the end of Joe Camel's pied piper rampage came to an end in 1997, it just seems like the same marketing campaigns found new life. I discuss briefly what makes a monetization model coercive in my Systems of Control in F2P paper.

As I discuss in my 2011 Zynga Analysis paper, major retailers will sell Zynga time cards for cash to children of any age, without the presence of an adult. The impending move by Facebook to remove their currency and shift sales to native currencies on FB games may improve the situation in the future, or it may just channel the traffic of minors to those games that have their own currency cards.

Solutions and Best Practices

I believe that the use of real money or its equivalent (premium currencies) should be removed as an option in games without the explicit informed consent of parents. I don't think the availability of a credit card necessarily constitutes informed consent. Can a parent that has her credit card “borrowed” by one of her children have all charges reversed if she finds it was used without her consent?

What I am also getting at here is that I think the use of premium currencies by minors is not a best practice. Children are not in a good position to judge the value of purchases without parental supervision. The use of common currencies in games for children is great, since this teaches them math, budgeting, and maybe even economic skills. I don't think in app purchases (IAPs) belong anywhere in games marketed to minors. If your response is “oh that is going to make it a lot harder to sell microtransactions”, then I'm going to suspect this is an admission that you know children are more vulnerable to suspect monetization methodologies.

When you sell a game to a child, it is a very difficult situation because you are not monetizing one person. You must sell to the child and the parent at the same time, both parties may have conflicting objectives, and both have veto power. This gives rise to the need for a new class of monetization models I call “dyadic” models. These models react to the needs of both parties and meet both simultaneously. This can be done without the use of IAPs and premium currencies. Transparency is key, the adult should be able to understand very quickly exactly what you are selling and why.

Future Trends

When a company deploys a pay to win game, they are essentially saying “I will reaffirm your notions of superiority over others for a price. You can beat anyone if you spend enough. Those that are not as narcissistic as you will leave but our marketing team will make sure they are quickly replaced, because we can't sell to you if you can't lord over anyone.” So perhaps this is just a natural adaptation to an increase in narcissism in society. But what if we are creating this narcissism by rewarding it? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I am guessing it is both, and as I have said earlier, we are not the only complicit branch of media.

I think it is inevitable that some companies will iterate towards even more exploitation of children in games. The most aggressive companies will hire soft and hard scientists like myself, in addition to quantitative scientists, to optimize the exploitation of youth. The ultimate result will be national regulation, which is already happening in some parts of Asia. In the meantime, such agents will try to make as much money as possible in this Wild Wild West of gaming.

Concerned consumers and the companies seeking to sell to them may create a new class of “Child Friendly F2P” games that savvy parents can steer towards. I know there have been some efforts in this direction, but I think they can still do better. To my knowledge even the games marketed currently as such still have premium IAPs and currencies. As consumer demand for these types of products increases, the money to be made via this path will get quite lucrative.

The longer we keep trying to exploit our children with our questionable business models, the worse our reputation in society is going to get. Every time there is a case of youth violence and the other branches of media say “the interactive media industry is at fault”, it is going to just get easier and easier for them. At some point even the more rational decision makers in society are going to have to put the hammer down on us, whether we collectively deserve it or not.


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Comments


Michael Joseph
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A very difficult topic indeed, but an extremely important one. Thanks for raising the awareness on this. I hope this isn't a situation where once the pump has been primed, it just propels itself and exponentially gains momentum.

I appreciate that you've narrowed the focus to thinking about how games (especially those marketed towards children) may be encouraging the rise of narcissistic personalities in young people and how some monetization schemes may be especially effective at it.

I think it's still an elephant sized topic but at least it's not the entire herd. Certainly trying to talk about all the cultural problems that contribute to this would result in a hopeless quagmire of a discussion that probably wouldn't help people in this forum deal with these sorts of issues as they relate to their field of expertise... games. As it is their profession this is where they can make the biggest difference.

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-century-of-the-self/

Michael Joseph
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@Ramin

off topic but...
I wonder if it were possible to build a computer model of western capitalist "democracies" (particularly the USA) and taking into account human nature, if problems such as rising narcissistic personalities could be proven to be an inevitable bi-product arising from certain structural flaws... the original sins of the design. I'd pose the same question regarding oligarchical "good old boy" networks of power, dysfunctional politics, inability to seriously tackle issues like environmental degradation and climate change, etc. Fnord. Because if the formation of these things is inevitable given the design of the system, it is incorrect to point to these bi-products and think "if only we could get rid of them, everything would be ok!" Trying to correct these things would then just be a giant game of whack-a-mole. As we've seen, even wise laws get undone.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpYkAS61VUo

Eric Finlay
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Interesting article. It would be encouraging to see more research into the topic, because that is the main thing that will be able to influence actual policy. Until then, even if many game developers are too ethical to capitalize, there will be some who will try to strike gold in this manner. Love the smoking analogy.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I had this paper read by a top professor of public health before I published it, to make sure I was not overstepping the available research, but research in this area is minimal in regards to interactive media and its affects on children. This year is the first where I have seen real motivation from government to support research into IM and children, but it will still be years before we know with any certainty how our industry affects children. This article is more an appeal to my peers in the industry to attempt to define best practices ahead of regulation, and thus possibly avert it.

Aaron San Filippo
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Hey Ramin, thanks for this! Just to add to the discussion a bit: we released an educational music app called "Monkey Drum" on IOS awhile back. We decided free-to-play was the best model (which in hindsight was a stupid decision, because we didn't really know anythign about how effective F2P works) - but we also did two things to try and keep our monetization "clean" -

1. We put a first-time-launch popup in with a note to parents that there are IAPs, and mentioned IAPS can be disabled in the device settings.
2. We put a similar message in the store page when the purchase dialog comes up.

In both of these cases, we also provide a link to the "deluxe" version that provides similar features in an app with no MTX.

Ultimately the app hasn't been a smashing success (we earn more from the Deluxe version) - but with about 300k downloads, we've yet to have a single complaint about the IAPS.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Aaron, it sounds like your game was not "whale optimized" which are the kind of products that are most unethical when aimed at children. I don't think developers like you that are trying to be conscientious are going to have problems. I also don't think conventional F2P models with IAPs are going to be tremendously successful if they are delivered ethically to children, as you have found. I have recommended against this approach with my clients and suggested alternatives.

Aaron San Filippo
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Yep, we came to pretty much the same conclusions. I wrote about it here:
http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/181419/7_ways_to_fail_at_fr
eetoplay.php

lately we've been considering adding some more content packs for $3 or so each (characters, instruments,) since the monthly active users has been steadily growing and is sitting around 60k.

It wouldn't turn it into a successful app in the big picture, but maybe it'd be worth the 2 weeks or so it'd take us.

I think if we were to make another kid's game/app though, we'd probably just shoot for quality, go for a premium price, and hit as many platforms as possible.

Kenneth Blaney
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Although everything you've said here about ethical IAP practices holds water, a lot of this "Me Me Me Generation" stuff is junk. I recall seeing that Time Magazine article a bunch of times when it came out and it was universally being shared by older people with "Kids today..." types of quotes. The incredibly misleading part surrounds what questions were being asked. Specifically, they asked young people if they were more or less talented at X than their average peer. They then attached a graph showing a bunch of lines that trend upwards. However, these trends are misleading as we should reasonably expect 50% of people to report they are better than average. These upwards trends then tended in many cases to be only above 50% as much as older generations were below 50% (so half of the upward trend is students gaining confidence in skills they actually have). Beyond that, despite upward trends in many places, plenty fields (for example, math) still see below expected confidence rates.

I don't mean to derail the discussion so much and I would like to express how much respect I have for you and your work. Rather I'm particularly sensitive to this as a college math professor because I believe it is both harmful to education (many of the "Kids today..." crowd are also the first to suggest college is a bad investment) and a direct result of misleading people with the poor use of statistics. Again, nothing in the article actually hinges upon that article, nor do you seem to espouse that mindset. It is a very interesting comparison between marketing techniques of tobacco and FTP games.

Michael Joseph
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"these trends are misleading as we should reasonably expect 50% of people to report they are better than average"

Wrong. Why should we reasonably expect this? The responses are not random. The responses only reflects their own feelings/humility/self esteem.

I would reasonably expect to see the effects of culture on these types of responses. Go to Tokyo and you're likely to get significantly different results than NYC.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Kenneth, I have not studied their sources in detail, but there does seem to be a preponderance of evidence showing that the latest generation is glued to their electronic devices (I call this job security) and that the long process of building social skills and the ability to "read" the body language of their peers is rapidly retarding. From my experience what is replacing it is social network marketing skills. This is a profound shift in species skills, at least in my country (USA). If I want to market something on Facebook, I will definitely hire a Millennial, but there is a huge price to pay for that ability to virtually socialize.

I also worry that the shift from crystalized intelligence to cloud-based intelligence (as I discuss in this paper: http://gameful.org/group/games-for-change/forum/topics/the-nature
-of-will-a-third-measure-of-intelligence) will cause this next generation to overestimate their abilities, have a difficult time innovating, and lose some level of self-determination. When I see my GF's 13 year old daughter lay in bed for days staring at her computer and declining offers to get out and exercise, I wonder if my career will make things worse for them?

Kenneth Blaney
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Michael, We should reasonably expect that because it isn't narcissism if it is true. It is absolutely true (assuming the data isn't skewed) that half of the population is above average at any specific thing. Maybe you want to argue with whether or not it is reasonable to expect that people who are slightly above average to know that they are actually above average? Point being, I wouldn't find 60% claiming to be above average any more disturbing than 60% claiming to be below average (both are indicative of problems in self perception).

Ramin, I absolutely agree that it is true that young people today use the internet and technology more than younger people before, but I'm really not convinced it is for any reason other than there is more technology than there used to be. Kids in the past turned out fine despite all of the things that were "ruining" them when their brains became adult brains, kids today will do the same thing.

I'm glad you touched on the exercise, while worrying that kids today don't conform to the standards of socialization in previous generations, we get distracted from the very real public health issues about kids. Fact of the matter is that, in America, our diets and exercise habits have become very poor and public health as policy is facing a wave of libertarian ideals. As a result my generation is not expected to live as long as yours will, and that is a massive change in trends. That said, I don't think technology (and your career) is the problem here, as both things could be used to solve the problem. Consider that the idea of player equity from another paper, which a young person understands from playing a game, could be used to directly relate to any number of things described as "human capital" (education, physical health, relationships, etc).

Ramin Shokrizade
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Kenneth, all of your points are excellent and valid. I certainly am not trying to engage in a "our generation is better than your generation" discussion, since for various reasons I get along pretty well with Millennials. I just want to initiate discussion on a topic that I thinks needs it desperately, and which for a variety of reasons is still taboo.

Having come from a public health background, the negative public health trends of technology use haunt me and I am doing my best to push this ship in a direction that will reverse the trends toward lifespan loss. This is a delicate balancing act, because any solutions I come up with must both increase health AND increase profits or they will not be adopted. This sets a very high bar for the new monetization and design models I have been inventing.

Michael Joseph
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"It is absolutely true (assuming the data isn't skewed) that half of the population is above average at any specific thing. "
-

It doesn't require any data to deduce this obvious fact so as you point out, if the data refuted this it would have to be wrong.

But this has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand.

-
"Maybe you want to argue with whether or not it is reasonable to expect that people who are slightly above average to know that they are actually above average?"
-

No, I want to argue that in different cultures you get different results. This is true when comparing two different cultures that exist today, and comparing a current culture to a historical culture.

What we're comparing is not perception, it's things like humility and modesty which relate to how much respect we have for other people. If you have less respect for others then you're likely to care less about how they are treated.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kenneth Blaney
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Ramin, from the slice of of life's work that I have read (you are quite prolific, I haven't had the opportunity to read as much as I want yet), I absolutely see the burden you mention. That is, the burden of running a business that is simultaneously pro-consumer AND capable of keeping the lights on. For bonus points, maybe not abusing the employees is a goal also. I don't think I knew that you came from a public health background, but it makes a lot of sense.

Anyway, sorry to drag this out because it is a fairly trivial point in a responsible and thought provoking article. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my bellyaching.

Michael Joseph
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"The average doesn't necessarily split two groups in halves."

yes but in this case median and the average are the same thing since we're not talking about quantifying the skill level (as you have done). And this is all tangential to the point I was making which was that we can't expect 50% of the people to respond that they feel they are better than average.

Kenneth Blaney
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Michael, if the skill isn't quantified then "better than average" as a term makes no sense. That said, since it isn't likely that the data we are looking at is skewed (large sample size, lots of subdivisions in skill level, not talking about highly specialized skills like surgery), it makes sense that roughly 50% of people would legitimately above average (even if only by a little) and 50% would be below average. It is thus expected to see roughly 50% of people report thinking they are above average and 50% report thinking they are below average. This wouldn't be based on hubris nor lacking respect for others, it would be based on a factual understanding of the situation.

If we see much less than 50% in these situations it means students are not confident with the skills they have learned. If we see much more than 50% it means students are overconfident. Thus, if we would say that 60% reporting to be above average means they are the "Me Me Me Generation", we would have to also conclude that 40% reporting as above average would be a generation crippled by self doubt (which obviously wasn't the case as older generations have done or are doing fine).

Michael Joseph
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"Michael, if the skill isn't quantified then "better than average" as a term makes no sense."
--

Of course it makes sense. The respondents had no quantified data to work with. They just had their own gut sense to go by. You persist in this irrelevant line of argument.

From the study:

“Rate yourself on each of the following traits as compared with the average person your age. We want the most accurate estimate of how you see yourself.” One of the attributes is “understanding of others,” with choices of highest 10%, above average, average, below average, and lowest 10%. The report lists the percentage of students in each year who rated themselves as above average or highest 10%."

There is no way you can just reasonably assume 50% of the people will answer a particular way for these sorts of questions because the respondents are answering based on self identity (which is shaped by culture) and not based on any quantified data.

You now use "confidence" to characterize the reasons for any differences. That's a step in my direction. You say tomato... I say narcissism.

David Smith
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"these trends are misleading as we should reasonably expect 50% of people to report they are better than average"

Not usually. Search for "Dunning-Kruger" - here's a line from Wikipedia:
"The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average."

And as noted in a later comment "Go to Tokyo and you're likely to get significantly different results than NYC." The Dunning-Kruger effect seems to vary based on the culture.

Kenneth Blaney
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They are working from a data set, Michael, however they are working from an incomplete one (that is, their own experience with their peers and the numerous standardized tests they had taken in high school). Although there will be error based on that incomplete data set (Dunning-Kruger as Dave Smith points out), we should expect to see that error centered around 50% because 50% actually are better than average.

Chris Londrie
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I'm sorry, I genuinely can't agree with this, and don't agree with this, or with the Camel bits that have already passed. I grew up with Joe Camel, both my parents smoked at some point in their lives (my mother quit, my father smokes to this day) and yet I don't smoke. My parents did their job as parents and taught me. Trying to regulate the world won't work, it on the morals of any company itself to regulate and on every generation of parents to do their part in helping their children grow up.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Chris, this is a bit off topic, but if you spend time with your parents when they smoke, then you are smoking also.

I'm not sure what points you are trying to make, but governments do regulate everything from phones to water to food and life would be much more challenging if we could not trust the basic elements of life that we consume. Do you realize the implications of a world without regulations? Are you advocating for anarchy?

I am in alignment with you about carefully supervising your children's use of interactive media, I think those of us that actually work in this industry are more careful about that than the general public. That said, it is increasingly becoming the case that any child without a smart phone becomes a social outcast. Monitoring the communications of our children constantly is becoming an increasingly difficult task. Some general guidelines in our society for what is permissible and what is not would be helpful.

How would you recommend we as parents help our children grow up in this electronic age. Do you have children?

Vicki Smith
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Parents do have ultimate responsibility for their children, it's true. It's also true that some children will have responsible parents, some will not. It is still a questionable ethical choice to build a business that relies on -- that exploits -- the mistakes of the irresponsible parents.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Vicki, while I agree with you, I think many parents are under the impression that games are harmless. The ESA is very good at putting out messages that games are good for children. I personally think games can be GREAT for children. That said, these types of mixed messages can create a false sense of safety and hope in parents that would rather not have to participate in the games their children are accessing.

Also since people between the age of 18 and 25 are treated like adults but still have a hard time correctly gauging the long term effects of their actions, a lot of our 25 year olds find themselves with crippling credit card and tuition debts that they may spend their entire lives trying to crawl out from. These threats may not be the same as those of cigarette smoke, but they can be just as damaging.

kevin Williams
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It is a shame that the one aspect of the digital entertainment industry that dose sell product successfully to Children was neglected from this report - the video amusement industry, especially the Redemption sector has achieved a strong children metric approach that also offer a parent leveler that is needed to be considered by the consumer games scene before they poison the well.

Robert Leach
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"For brevity sake I am not attempting to make this a scientific-grade paper,"

Because Gamasutra is considered a professional's website and is a place where a lot of industry folks get their news and even establish their opinions, I'd actually prefer to see a "scientific-grade" paper on this subject. For example, in discussions like this it's incredibly important to avoid using a term like "child" unless it's accompanied by a proper definition. The word "child" is all too often bandied about because it carries significant emotional weight.

We need to know what specific age group we're talking about: 6-8, 13 and under, 13-17, 17+? Each of these age groups is treated very differently both legally and in terms of how marketers might approach them. Even though it's safe to assume that there are individuals under the age of 13 in regular use of Facebook, it's definitely not safe to assume that it represents any substantial percentage of the Facebook population (and thus the target of casual games), especially given that they are reasonably up front about their age policies.

Additionally, we shouldn't mention companies by name unless there were specific demographic numbers to go with it. Yes, Zynga just happens to be a pariah in the business, so they become an easy target, but companies like Disney and Nickelodeon have very openly targeted children in the exact same business, making very similar titles.

Another point that absolutely needs to be made is that in electronic games it's reasonable to assume that adults 21 and over represent a significantly larger percent of the gaming population right now than they ever have in the history of the medium, and by a wide margin. So companies do stand to make a lot more money targeting the population that controls the money than those that don't, especially in a hit-driven marketplace where a title might have a lifespan of 4 months if it's lucky.

Finally, let's please avoid using analogies like comparing game marketing strategies with the infamous Joe Camel fiasco. Games are used to positively progress the development of all ages, from birth onwards, while cigarettes are proven to directly affect physical health in a negative manner. If we want to target specific games as being unhealthy, we, as an industry, have to prove that with dedicated research and in-depth analysis. We can't just say so.

To summarize, this means proving the following via scientific approaches: 1) some game mechanics are unhealthy from a developmental standpoint for a specified age range, 2) uncovering game companies who are specifically and maliciously targeting age ranges that are inappropriate in order to generate cash flow, and 3) creatively uncovering a series of best practices that truly enable our industry to move forward.

Ramin Shokrizade
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"So, who's buying all of this [F2P] content? I believe this question would require some serious consideration (and hopefully some ample research) because it's my fear that the people who shell out this kind of money are addicts - people who suffer from an illness similar to hoarding or some other type of obsessive compulsive behavior. Perhaps the answer is as simple as children who aren't fully developed brain-wise (watch Aasif Mandvi's interview with the Tap Fish CEO, both hilarious and illuminating) are buying into all this. If either is true then companies that participate in this type of game "design" are no better than Big Nicotine or drug peddlers whose primary source of income depends on repeat customers who are chemically and emotionally bound to the product."

Robert Leach: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RobertLeach/804711/

We seem to have similar concerns, and I regret if I did not word my opinion in the form you wanted to read. I do have a background in neuroscience and addiction research and clinical work, but I do not consider myself an expert in those sciences. I did consult a top professor of public health prior to posting this, and he found no faults with the science references I used and said my argument was "compelling".

That said, I usually write for game developers, not scientists. I did attempt to research exactly the issues we both wonder about in 2011, but while I did have some strong academic support, I was rebuffed because I did not come with my own funding. Thus this paper is my opinion, and can be trusted only as much as you trust my expertise in the space and my judgement. For some this may be "not at all". This is not the point of the paper, I am not attempting to convince anyone to take a specific action, I am attempting to promote dialogue in the industry and also propose reasons why politicians might want to fund this type of research, and why scientists might find this research valuable.

As far as what age is a "child" in the context of this paper, this may be anyone under the age of 25. This creates a number of political and legal difficulties because we largely consider people to be adults at the age of 18 for a number of reasons that are not based on brain development research. Thus I suspect everyone from age 18 to 25 is going to be in the "you are on your own, good luck" category. What I am suggesting will happen to those under the age of 18, and those that make products for them, is largely going to be determined by a combination of our (IM developers) behavior and public perception of the merits of our products. We have the opportunity to improve both of these metrics voluntarily.

As far as proving your 3 things, I believe I started doing #2 with my 2011 "Zynga Analysis" paper. #1 is going to require serious research and funding, the results of which possibly may not arrive in time before the public is threatened if companies intensify their aim at "minor" children. I am attempting to motivate the community to address your #3 by inviting collective work on best practices, as this can only be arrived at by a group of experts in this field as no one person is expert in all of the involved issues.

Robert Leach
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"I know, the title is heavy-handed but I'm currently losing sleep over an ill-advised late-night double-latte and my mood has grown somber. One thing that has been rattling around in my brain lately has been social gaming: notably the games of the heavy-hitters like Zynga, EA, Playdom (Disney), and many others."

This quote is the introductory comment from the blog entry quoted in the previous comment. Despite its content, it in no way promises to be scientific, un-biased, or even well written.

"A number of major studios have been asking me questions related to this under NDA, but I think this conversation needs to also be public. For brevity sake I am not attempting to make this a scientific-grade paper, but I do need to introduce some research because there are many layers involved in this discussion."

This quote promises something one step beneath a scientific paper, complete with research, and references a high degree of expertise and import from the author.

Both blogs then dig in with a heavy dose of opinions, very general references from uncertain sources (Comedy Central on one hand and Wikipedia on the other), and not much in the way of ground-breaking news or substance.

To write a blog requires internet access and the knowledge of how to click a mouse button. To write a scientific paper requires one to be truly unbiased in both content and approach. It requires constant definition and reference (preferably not of Wikipedia).

To write an actual scientific study on this, complete with a true hypothesis, statement of purpose, controlled and unbiased research, exhaustive study, and intricate attention to detail, would be the level of quality expected from anybody constantly claiming that they are an expert in their field. The above article comes close to none of these aspects. Nor does the Zynga Analysis document by the same author (which also contains no reliable references, and thus no tangible proof on his numerous claims).

The games industry needs a real scientific grade paper which allows for legitimate discussion on these topics, not more opinions. Not more blogs. Not more comments.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Robert, I have published something like 45 papers on interactive media in less than two years, at a pseudo science level. One of my scientific mentors, Dr. William McCarthy at UCLA, made similar comments in 2010 in backing me for a PhD in Public Health. He said the "blogish" style of my work points to the value that would be gained if I went through a PhD program and could produce papers in scientific style, especially given that my interactive media skill sets are very rare in academic circles.

That said, the admissions board rejected me because I did not come with my own funding. I feel that the knowledge I bring to this industry could be better with that training, but that it is needed now and at this point it is too late for me to step out for a few years while the trends I predicted in 2005 play out.

So yes I agree we need exactly what you describe, and until that Unicorn appears I am doing my best to fill the gap. Finding a Unicorn PhD that is willing to give up academia for 10 years to become an expert in game design, or finding a game veteran with 10 years experience that is willing to leave the industry to spend 4+ years trying to open up a new field of research is a hard sell. I was willing to do the latter and the academic and political will did not exist to allow it. It seems that if our reputation gets low enough, and more massacres get blamed on our industry, that motivation will be created, but I don't see this as a positive path. I'm also not waiting for the Unicorn that everyone is seeking but not supporting.

Robert Leach
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Ramin, if I've learned anything from your posts and your comments, it's that you have a following. The unicorn you speak of is right in front of you in the form of the gaming community, which absolutely has access to every type of person you could hope to ask for (students of psychology and neuroscience, doctors, journalistic writers, technical writers, people who are amazing with presentations and graphics, to name a few).

If the only thing preventing you from getting the funding you want is a particular skill, just ask the extremely generous people of the games community. You've got the audience, and you've got the visibility. Put together a cohesive plan of action and I have no doubt you'll find exactly the people you need to help.

Despite any tone of my previous posts, here, I do want this subject matter to reach maturity (no pun intended) and help move our industry in a positive direction. If you want to do that, you have been tenacious enough these last few months to put yourself in the unique position to get the wheels moving, and there's no much stopping you if you can use the tools of this community and the internet at large.

Best of luck,

Rob

Ramin Shokrizade
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For those wanting to see what a really sophisticated layered (as described in my "Systems of Control in F2P" paper) coercive monetization model game looks like, I would direct your attention to "Puzzle and Dragons". This game uses every psychological trick I have ever written about or read about, layered heavily, and presented in a game that is so simplistic and cartoonish that children of almost any age (can they form "3 of a kind"? they can even drag to anywhere!) can play it and no credit card is needed to be input on my iPad. If the child has the iPad password they can rack up hundreds of dollars of charges a day. The game is so sophisticated that even many adults can fall for its methods. This product is so sophisticated in its coercive monetization methodology that I suspect it would take me a 12 page paper to describe all these systems in detail.

It even uses all of the principles described in my "Supremacy Goods" microeconomic model and still manages to use them coercively. The creator of that game is going to make so much money.

As an experiment, if you have a child that has spent money on this game without you knowing, I would appreciate it if you contacted your credit card company and asked for your charges to be reversed because your child was coerced. Let me know if they give you a hard time. If they do I will publish a paper here on Gamasutra that you can copy and paste to send to your credit card company telling exactly what mechanisms were used to trick your child.

Aaron San Filippo
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I would actually really like to see a detailed writeup from you on this game.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Aaron, I just finished writing up a fairly comprehensive paper on coercive monetization model methodology, which uses a number of top products to show the "best practices" in this sector. I make a big deal of PaD since it is the state of the art, but also explain how other top products shine. I will post it when this article drops off.

Eric Robertson
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Perhaps we could make games that encourage more attentive parenting.

Examples:
1. Each game has a Youtube video outlining how the parent can restrict in-app purchases.
2. Maybe make a Parent simulator where you have to juggle job, spouse faction, hobbies, and family time.
3. Integrate pro-social aspects to our game. Reward behavior that would encourage real world positive social behavior.

For any child related solution to stick, should it not be parent-sourced?

Side thought: In App purchases seem to create extensive Customer Buy-In between the player and the app. I would imagine these micro-rewards from micro-investments further separates players from their real world social circles.

Maurício Gomes
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Kidoteca (my company) current policy:

Free games are free, and have no ads for stuff that is not ours in first place.
The ads for our own games are usually hidden, requiring actions that few children will know how to do (for example read instructions on how to open the hidden section... the children that we target most likely don't know how to read yet).

There are no IAP.
There are no screaming and flashing "BUY FULL VERSION" anywhere. (we do have "locked" stuff though, but it is wall of texts and to inform parents when they click on the locked stuff).

Some games do not have free version at all, it is buy it or not.

Joshua Dallman
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Protecting the children used to mean keeping them away from comic books in the 50's; later rock'n'roll was demonized; now freemium gaming. I'm in good company.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Joshua, I'm all for comic books, rock and roll, and (obviously) gaming. The problem here is not the content, it is the business models that are being used to deliver that content.

Joshua Dallman
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"Coercive Monetization of Children" = "Seduction of the Innocent"

Both blatant fear-mongering.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seduction_of_the_Innocent

Everything that's happened before will happen again.

Darren Grey
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I was very inspired by this article, Ramin - in fact, I decided to make a game about it! A game called Monetizing Children, for the recent Molyjam:

http://www.molyjam.com/games/169

Rather tongue-in-cheek and lacking subtlety, but then it is a jam game... Shaz Yousaf wrote the fantastic theme tune. Peter Molyneux himself showed up at the event and I ended up in a debate with him about the use of child-targeted monetization. Alas, he was fairly dismissive of most objections, comparing it monetization in other genres.

Shaz Yousaf
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I just got back from Molyjam London. My team mate was inspired by this article and we made a satirical game called 'Monetizing Children: Fun Pain' :)

Here's the link to our Molyjam page: http://www.molyjam.com/games/169


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