In-Game Spending: Tips to Keep Your Family Safe

Today’s modern games include the opportunity to spend money on in-app purchases, microtransactions and loot boxes. Although spending money on or within games can be an excellent way for kids to learn money management skills, it can also be easy to go overboard.

To prevent spending problems in gaming or curb them if they have become excessive, we have put together this article to help you and your family.

Concerned about your child’s gaming? Take the Video Game Addiction Test.

Types of In-Game Spending:

  1. Subscriptions. Like a gym membership or Netflix, there is a monthly or annual fee required to keep playing. Suppose your player is interested in a specific game part of the subscription or multiple games within a game library. In that case, subscriptions can be a way to keep overall expenses down.
  2. Paid Games with Downloadable Content (DLC). Here you pay upfront for a game, but updates, new levels, or content might require additional purchases. It might be hard to know in advance, but we recommend discussing the long-term cost of a particular game and if staying up to date is affordable (or even worth it). It might be a good game, but it might be a good game to pass on if your player can’t afford the full experience.
  3. Free-to-Play with Microtransactions. A microtransaction is a transaction where a player can purchase virtual items for small (and sometimes not so small) amounts of money. They are anything you can buy inside of a game, including items like skins or costumes, upgrades and premium features that might give a player a competitive advantage, loot boxes, and more. Microtransactions often appear in free-to-play games, which have no upfront cost to download the game, making the game more accessible. Then, as the player is playing the game, they will be presented with opportunities to spend money in-game to continue playing or enhance their experience.

The Problem with Microtransactions

Problems with in-game spending and microtransactions can occur easily. Purchases tend to be for small amounts, making it easy to spend impulsively. A few dollars here and there can add up fast!

But not all microtransactions are so micro. Some microtransactions can be more than the cost of a retail game – were you to pay full price. For example, Grand Theft Auto offers a gold-plated private jet that will cost a player almost $130. In Rockstar Remastered, each song is only $2.99, but if you want the whole catalog, it will run you close to $6,500. Other microtransactions can be more expensive.

Often games have their own in-game currency, such as V-bu in Fortnite or Roblox’s Robux. To avoid surprises, it is important always to know when you are spending real money rather than in-game points or in-game currency. If players are using real money to get more in-game currency, always think from the real money perspective. It doesn’t matter if $100 gives you 10 or 10,000 game bucks—it’s still $100 from your wallet.

The Lure to Spend

Game developers are smart. They know how to optimize offers to players to get them spending. Some games even use algorithms designed to track how much your player would spend if given the opportunity and make offerings based on that. Another example includes leveraging a player’s Facebook data to identify their favorite sports team and then offering them in-game items associated with it.

Microtransactions can also include loot box mechanics, which involve purchasing a mystery box that includes random or unspecified items. Due to the randomized chance mechanic, loot boxes resemble gambling.

RESOURCES: Learn more about the link between gaming and gambling.

What Drives Spending on Microtransactions?

If a player doesn’t know if what they purchase will have value to them or retain its value, you might be wondering why they would spend their money. There are several motivations for in-game spending:

  • Social influence and FOMO are big ones – your player may want to keep up with what their friends are doing. Spending on accessories like skins can also compensate for being a less skilled player or social status amongst peers. Emotionally driven spending can occur as an extension of the desire to avoid uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings.
  • Impulsivity, whereby one decides in the moment without considering the consequences, is also common for in-game spending. Tweens and teens are particularly vulnerable to this, as their brain wants what it wants – and the prefrontal cortex isn’t developed enough to plan and manage impulsivity. If ADHD is involved, which we see in many problematic gamers and recreational gamers, it is even more challenging to control.
  • Game design mechanics encourage repeated player spending and often without providing info about whether they will improve a player’s performance. Without critical thinking skills, it is easy to be duped, assume something good will happen, and, therefore, spend in the moment.

PARENT TIP: Younger kids are more vulnerable to thinking they are getting value for their money, meaning they don’t realize buying a skin or accessory is just that. It won’t improve their skills or performance.

What is a Parent to Do?

Knowledge is power! By understanding some of the ins and outs of microtransactions, you can address issues around spending before they arise – especially with younger kids. This type of conversation, using relatable subjects for kids, is a great opportunity to teach lessons about spending, saving, and predatory marketing. If spending problems have already arisen, what you’ve learned here today will help you with where to begin an intelligent and informed conversation. 

  • Set up a weekly or monthly in-game spending budget. Do this collaboratively. Teen and older gamers crave autonomy and will want to have a say regarding the amount they can spend. First, however, they should explain how they arrived at that number and what benefits they will derive. If they can’t, then hold off until they can. With younger players, parents have the opportunity to teach their children to think carefully about the value of what they are spending on and if it is worthwhile. These are the seeds of financial literacy.
  • Track spending. Have your gamer write down every in-game purchase on a piece of paper—even if it’s just a few cents—and keep a running total. Then, ask them to look over that paper every time they think about making another purchase to double-check it falls within their budget. Those who are more apt to do it on their phone can use the notes section or a budget tracking app.
  • Set up parental controls. Beyond agreeing on a spending limit, support your gamer by taking advantage of tools like parental controls. These should be the standard with younger gamers. For example, some platforms allow parents to control both the types of transactions and the amount, and the Google Play Store will enable parents or players to set budgets within its service.
  • Set up payment notifications. If you attach your debit or credit card to a game or service, set up payment notifications to avoid surprises and monitor ongoing spending. If you see the limit reached quickly, you might want to have a conversation about balance. Older gamers should be able to explain their rationale, whereas younger gamers may need a reminder.
  • Link gift cards instead of credit cards. If you’ve agreed on a spending limit but are concerned about if your gamer will be able to stick to it, or they haven’t in the past, then you can link a gift card instead of a credit card. Doing so will protect you if your gamer loses control. 
  • Use passwords for transactions Another way to prevent unwanted purchases is to require a password for transactions to be made. Please do not share the password with your child unless you’ve agreed it requires a gamer to put in a little more effort to make a purchase, therefore providing more time to think about whether they want to make that purchase.
  • Danger Zone: Cash can be used to purchase Steam or other similar gaming gift cards. If you have a problem gamer, you may think you are giving them cash for gas or food money, but they may take that cash and buy gift cards for in-game spending.

Gaming is here to stay, and in-game monetization is increasingly exploitative. In-game spending can lead to greater attachment to gaming, increasing the number of hours spent playing. You need to have a plan, not only for the amount of time a player plays but also the amount of money they spend. These tips, along with clear and open communication, can support your family to stay safe with gaming and avoid potential problems. 

Need Help for a Gaming Problem?

If you need assistance, it can be helpful to speak with a professional who specializes in gaming and family issues. Our Reclaim Family Program is designed to reduce problematic gaming and conflict within the family. Alternatively, you can speak to a video game addiction therapist or apply for our coaching program.

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