As anyone who's attended a child's birthday party knows, putting a dozen kids together can turn even doe-eyed angels into out-of-control brats. So what happens when you put thousands in a virtual world and give them tons of incentive to steal Mom's credit card? Max found out when he took a customer support job for an online PC game that shall remain nameless. It's roughly like World Of Warcraft, but marketed to tweens. Max handles customer support issues, like payment problems and troll banning, and what he's witnessed will make you want to grab the nearest child and give them a stern talking-to.
6Kids Don't Hesitate To Rob Their Families
Max's game is "freemium" -- that most insidious of revenue models -- which means you can play for free, but if you want the cool stuff and/or wish to avoid obnoxious limitations, you have to pay. You've probably got a dozen such games on your phone. Kids, not being famous for their patience, are eager to take the paying route. But kids are also not known for their copious wealth -- a mere allowance isn't going to cut it, and our short-sighted government made it illegal to offer shiny silver dimes in exchange for 12 hours of coal mining. Luckily for the freemium games industry, this problem has a solution: stealing from mom and dad.
So when you work at customer support for one of these games, as our source does, you get lots of parents calling to complain that they're being charged for subscription services they didn't sign up for. "And then we have to tell them, 'Hey, you said your email is email@example.com, and we have a firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you know this person?' 'Oh, that's my son!'"
"Soon to be 'was.'"
The most common calls Max gets are from parents who underestimated their children's deviousness. "One of the first calls I got was from a woman who banned her daughter from using her laptop near bedtime. And she saw that charges were being made at 11:00 pm. She wanted to know what was going on. We said that her daughter must have access to the laptop, because the IP address matched the address for other payments. And the mother started crying, saying her daughter had a gaming addiction. I didn't know what to say. I'm like, 'No, you just need to watch your daughter. She's just sneaking out of bed to steal your laptop and credit card.'"
How can she possibly expect to focus in school with an unexpanded town looming over her conscience?
As you can guess, this is where the vast majority of parents insist that their little angels would never do such a thing. Always remember: Children are sociopaths:
"The ones I feel really bad for are grandparents," says Max. "How could you steal your grandmother's credit card? And the grandparents are always really upset. Sometimes we'll hear a grandparent being like, 'You sit down and you stay there! You stole my money!'" And yes, some of the stories are heartbreaking. "When I first started, a kid stole about $600 from his grandparents. It was an old woman who called us from a nursing home. I felt awful having to tell her this on the phone. I gave her the kid's name and asked 'Do you know who this is?' 'That's my 14-year-old grandson!' I'm thinking 'Nooo! I'm so sorry he stole your money!'"
The whole experience has taught Max one valuable but depressing lesson: "I don't trust children now. I wouldn't let any near money. I wouldn't let any see your wallet. If I see a kid that's 12 or older, I think, 'Oh, you probably do horrible things online.'"
Mary Turner/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Not that kids need money to be horrific little shits online, but it certainly ups their game.
But it's at this point we should take a step back and acknowledge ...
5Games Like This Are Pretty Good At Getting Kids Hooked, Then Making Them Pay
Cracked has told you before about how games are designed to be addictive and get money from you, and those strategies are only more effective when you're targeting kids, who can spend all their free time playing and don't have to set aside money for the weekly grocery bill. For starters, because this is a PC game, it lacks a lot of the parental financial control options that come with the Apple Store, Google Play, etc. Any kid who knows where mom keeps her purse (read: all of them) can spend money with ease. Sure, the game could introduce their own parental controls ... but why?
You spend a little money, and get a shitload of money in return. How could that possibly be wrong?
There's also how purchases in kids' games can be misleading, to the point where the Australian government launched an investigation into the worst offenders. In-game purchases aren't like Amazon orders, where you go through several confirmation pages. They disguise that they even exist, so that parents don't get suspicious and kids don't think twice about hitting a button that says "Get 100 gems/donuts/MacGuffins right now!"
Beeline Interactive, Inc.
Food and electricity are fleeting, but smurfing is forever.
And everything about these games involves sucking players down a path and then throwing an obstacle in their way that can only be removed with cash. This technique is called a "pinch." The game puts you in a situation in which your castle is being overrun by clans, or your outfit is being trashed by Kim Kardashian, or some other dire situation is unfolding. Then it reminds you that spending a little money could make all your problems go away. The free part gets you emotionally invested in gains you've made, and then the game threatens those gains. It's the gaming equivalent of a protection racket. What frustrated kid is going to resist that offer?
"I can stop looking off-fleek, and on a discount? I can't afford not to!"
Max's game entices players with special items and quests. Sure, anyone can play the game for free, but only paying members get access to that exclusive quest where the boss coughs up a gun that shoots swords. The membership page really hypes up all the cool stuff you can access with just a little cash, from exclusive character classes to special pets that will follow you around and let everyone know that yeah, you're the shit. Oh, and by the way, only 2,000 sets of this cool new Halloween-themed armor are going to be sold. Ever. You wouldn't want to miss out, would you? Don't you want to be able to show off and let new players know that you were kicking virtual ass years before they even got out of the tutorial? Yeah, they're also selling social status. You might recognize this as the urge that also drives the entire world economy.
Triniti Interactive Ltd.
Quick, buy this candy cane sword before your folks do something reckless with the money, like buy you a present.
Add all these strategies up, and it's easy to see how children's games raked in a cool $1.9 billion in 2015. We'd love to know how many of those dollars were truly purchases the parents approved beforehand. Speaking of which ...