Ask Alicia About Making Purchases Online

What's that outfit cost?

by Derek Fisher

As adults we know how easy it is to push a button and having something arrive at our doorstep within a few hours or a few days. From homes to cars to shampoo, almost anything can be bought online. E-commerce sites link bank and credit card accounts to their shopping experience to make it as easy as possible for you to not only browse and place items in your cart, but to also make that final purchase. You will often see advertisements for additional items that are similar to what’s in your cart to boost sales. If you abandon your cart by leaving unpurchased items in it, you may get reminders to finish your purchase. Most e-commerce sites will allow you to setup a subscription or reoccurring purchase in order to make it even easier to get your favorite product delivered to you without even thinking about it. All of this is designed to get you to buy more and buy often.

Gaming is both similar and different. Making purchases in a game is not usually directly tied to real money. In many cases the in-game credits are converted from real currency through the purchasing of the in-game credits. These “in-app purchases” are also called “microtransactions”. However, just like in the real world, microtransactions are usually made in the tap of a button with immediate results. Often to keep up or get ahead of other players in the game, microtransactions are required. This will therefore drive the desire by most gamers to buy frequently and continue to buy as more content becomes available. Without these additional transactions the player is essentially ineffectual until they are able to purchase the in-game tools that allow them to compete. The struggle is real!

Microtransactions are mostly found in games that are “free-to-play” or otherwise sold at a reduced price but require these additional purchases to unlock the full experience of the game. Game developers are making more use of this model to ensure that there is a steady stream of revenue after the game is released. Additionally, it makes the initial introduction to their product cheaper and therefore reach a wider audience. Even with many gamers playing without making additional microtransaction, game developers can garner enough income to make this a very lucrative model. In the popular free-to-play game Fortnite, players spend millions of dollars per month on in-game content like “loot boxes” and “skins”. It is not hard to see why this model works.

From the players perspective, and perhaps more importantly the parent’s perspective, getting a sense of the total cost that is associated with these games and the microtransactions can be difficult. The upfront cost is not immediately apparent, and you instead are paying over a period of time through many small transactions. We see something like this in our daily lives, especially during events like a global pandemic, that have forced us to rely less on cash and more on other means of paying like a credit card or our phones. With these payment options it is easy to lose sight of what things cost when you are simply swiping or tapping.

So how do we teach our children about microtransactions and the value of currency both in-game and out? How do parents ensure that there are proper controls to limit these purchases for their children?

It is usually simple enough to eliminate purchases by ensuring that there is no credit card or other funding options linked to the game to make purchases. Purchasing a pre-paid credit card that can be loaded with credit is one way to provide limited access to funds on occasion as well as offer a reward system where credit can be added when a chore is completed like reading a chapter in a book, taking some creative time, getting good grades, and other imaginative tasks. This has the added benefit of placing value on the credit that is being added and reinforcing the concept of work equaling pay.

Micro-transactions can be a huge headache and have an impact on your wallet. Knowing what they are, how they work, and why they are lucrative helps us build the guardrails around these purchases.