6 Realities Of My Job Addicting Kids To Online Games
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.
Kids 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.'"
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 ...
Games 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!"
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.
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 ...
Parents Can Be Worse Than Kids
If there's one thing worse than a thieving kid, it's a parent who refuses to admit that their child isn't precious and perfect. "A mother called and said, 'You guys charged me. I didn't pay for this, and I'm going to call the FBI!' While she's yelling, my co-worker's looking up the account. It's clearly this woman's son who paid. As soon as my co-worker said that, the mom said, 'No, that's impossible. He's 12. He can't do that!' We ended up refunding her and banning the account, but we emailed her back to say, 'You said it was fraudulent and our system messed up; it wasn't. Your son saved your credit card information.'
"We didn't hear back, and then all of a sudden, her son started to contact us using her email. Saying 'No, these were all authorized, definitely all authorized, bring that account back,' but everything was lower-case and misspelled. So we sent another email. 'Oh, it looks like your son had control of your email.' And then she emails us back, saying 'How dare you say this!' This whole long thing about how we're awful. And she ended it with an inspirational signature about learning from your mistakes. She clearly didn't know how email works. We went and found her Facebook profile, and she had the inspirational message tattooed across her chest. We're like, yeah, this lady's nuts."
Like, a "shares a 'stupid people on Facebook' list not realizing she's #12" kind of nuts.
"My boss once went on mute after she had a conversation with a woman about how her kid was stealing. The mom said she was going to talk with her kid. While on mute, my boss could hear the woman saying, 'Don't worry, they're just stupid people. They probably didn't even go to college, I'll get you whatever you want, baby.' Well, okay, now you're not getting anything from us. My boss had to be like, 'Uh, I could hear what you were saying.'"
She must have skipped the "how ears work" lecture from her fancy college learnin' days.
Online theft and parents who aren't the most tech-literate are a bad combination, but you can at least get the sense that they mean well. Spoiled kids, on the other hand ...
"I saw a kid who spent $300 in a week. Usually, I'll do an email followup: 'Hey, we saw you spent a lot of money. We want to make sure it's authorized and isn't fraud.' And then I checked this kid's payment history, and he's been spending $300 a week since 2008."
That's over $120,000. And while we're sure his parents can afford it, it's hard to look at that number and then your own credit card bill and not feel the tiniest flicker of rage.
And to make things even worse ...
We Have To Pander To Brats (If They Pay)
What you have to understand about freemium games is that most players don't pay a dime -- 60 percent never buy any items, and of the rest, the vast majority only spend a few bucks. Success is based on squeezing cash out of a tiny fraction of the truly addicted and/or wealthy player base. The majority of freemium game revenue comes from less than one percent of players. In the biz, these players are called "whales." Games have even started using software that will automatically adjust prices based on how big a spender you are.
Imagine a grocery store charging you $50 for a loaf of bread because you buy so much bread.
For Max, that means he has to be nice to any kids who are legitimately spending their parents' money, even if they're also acting like living PSAs for birth control. You don't offend the whales. "Worst case for a paid player, we do month bans. Free players we're stricter on. When players are paying us, we have to be nicer to them. Sometimes we don't want to be -- it's difficult to be polite sometimes. We had a conversation with a kid who said, 'I'm going to get my friend in Syria to bomb your whole family!' And we just have to be like, 'Hi, sorry you feel this way!'"
And because, as we previously established, kids can be ingenious little shitheads, some paying players have figured out that Max has to be nice to them. "They definitely take advantage of that, they'll send us horrifying things. 'I paid them $600, so they won't do anything.' And that's true. One kid told us he hoped we get raped in a dark alley and our apartments catch fire. Great, thanks! Have a 24-hour ban, see you tomorrow!"
"For an extra $500, you'll unlock the super secret 'Put a real gun
to our heads while we thank you for the honor' bonus quest!"
At least, uh ... he's not hoping they get raped in the burning apartment? Max insists he doesn't mind. He has a background in working with kids, so their shock-and-awe tactics are nothing new to him. But some of his co-workers hate it, and we don't blame them. Customer service can be rough enough without introducing rape-threat-spewing brats who are immune to punishment, especially considering most of the employees getting rape threats are women. But if the abuse comes from people who have played for years without spending even five bucks, then the staff can have some fun.
"One girl said, 'I'm going to call the Internet Police on you.' Okay, good luck! A lot of kids are like, 'My uncle's a lawyer, and I've already sent him all the information.' 'Okay, well, we'll see you in court, I guess.' One kid ended his email with 'You've been served!' We've never received a lawsuit."
There Is An International Fraud Market Based Around These Games
While Max's game is American, there are also a lot of Brazilian, Indonesian, and Filipino players (gamers in those countries often have lower-end PCs, and games like this are made to run on them). But the foreign kids often put the shenanigans of young Americans to shame:
"We have a lot of payment fraud issues, which are usually from Indonesia. They like to steal PayPal accounts and then they buy in-game gift cards. So if we ever see a bunch of gift cards being purchased, we know to check IP addresses ... I have no idea how these kids are getting access, but they'll charge $2,000 onto multiple credit cards. We'll get calls from an adult saying, 'I don't know what any of this is.' We look it up and refund everything and tell them, 'Please get a new credit card.' These kids are devious, and I don't know why. If you're going to steal so much money, why spend it on a game?"
We would say, "At least they're not spending it on drugs," but they kind of are.
That brings up the point of whether they got so addicted to the game that it drove them to a life of crime, as seen in every old after-school special about the dangers of drugs. And while it seems like a ridiculous reason to risk kiddie jail, some kids appear to have turned the fraud itself into part of the game:
"The Brazilian kids ... they'll email us saying, 'Oh, I tricked you! This isn't even my account! It's someone else's account, but I wanted to see how lax your security is!' Well, you gave us all the correct security information ... We ask for all the standard security information that every game and online store asks for. They know everything; they share accounts nonstop and then tell us they're trolling us."
It's like a miniature cyber arms race between bored Brazilian kids and adult Americans who want to expend as little effort on this nonsense as possible.
Too bad their corrupt governments didn't steal their computer money too.
"They like to steal accounts. 'Oh, give me the password to your account and I'll give you the password to this really good account!' Then they'll immediately change the email and password and steal the account. Which is why we don't allow accounts to be traded, but they still fall for it all the time. They use password trackers, too. There are multiple websites where kids auction accounts ..."
Accounts are free, but can be loaded with all sorts of rare weapons, armor, and other items that other players are either too lazy to earn through gameplay or simply can't acquire legitimately anymore. Are you grasping what's happening here? You've got huge amounts of very grown-up credit card fraud being committed around the globe purely so that the thief can have a differently-colored cartoon sword in an imaginary virtual world. We are living in the future!
If that guitar gun made some Zimbabwean smile for a few minutes
before they grew bored with it, you can file for bankruptcy with a satisfied smile.
And if you thought you were going to get out of this article without hearing any disturbing sex stuff ...
Weird Things Unfold In Tween Chatrooms
It can be tough to think back to your tween years, either because they were simply too long ago or because that particular part of memory lane is a never-ending cringe kaleidoscope of awkwardness and embarrassment. But Max gave us a powerful reminder that kids can be really goddamn weird. "We had a character whose name was a transgender slur, and they were posting horrible tentacle sex stories. It got to the point where we were reading it aloud and other people in the office were laughing at us. We had to contact their parent. 'We had to IP ban your child because they're disgusting! Please make them stop!' We never heard back."
Most of the game's players are in the 11-15 age range, and many of them play more for the chatroom than for the actual game. And when you combine anonymity with a very special time in their lives when sex is strange and funny and the consequences of trolling seem meaningless, you get, well, this:
"I had to call a woman and read a chat transcript on the phone, which was awful. 'Your son said 'I want to stick my fist up your asshole.' Congratulations, your son's weird! She was very flustered, she said she'd talk to him. And I'm thinking, 'You're never going to have this discussion with your son. I know I wouldn't.'"
"Look at this! You don't even mention lube once. Just right into it. We raised you to fist responsibly."
But don't worry -- sometimes the virtual fisting is consensual. "You have 16-year-olds 'dating' 13-year-olds. It's weird. There's also a lot of catfishing. Players will email us and say 'My girlfriend's account was muted. Can you unmute it? I'm asking because she doesn't have an email.' Yeah, she says she doesn't have an email because it has a guy's name in it. It's a dude. Usually it's boys pretending to be girls to get boys to buy them stuff. We can't give out personal information, so we can't say, 'Hey, this one player who says she's your girlfriend is in fact a 12-year-old boy.' We wish we could warn them sometimes, but we can't.
"There was one girl -- she says in the game that she's 16, but her Facebook says she's 20. She was offering naked pictures of herself to get in-game money. She ignored our warnings, so we had to IP ban her. She's now figured out how VPNs and proxies work, but she hasn't figured out that we can see emails yet, so anytime we see her email, we ban her. She keeps trying."
Outside of coyotes stalking road runners, this kind of stubborn tenacity is depressing.
But at least an adult offering naked pictures to kids is better than adults asking for naked pictures of kids. You know, relatively. But that happens too: "Recently, we were trying to unban IP addresses to get old people back into the game. I was looking through them, and I'm like, 'Oh, that guy was banned for being a pedophile, I better not unban him!' There are who we assume were grown men asking kids to cyber on Skype."
And then there are the stalkers -- the players who have chatted with female customer support staff and decided they're obsessed with them. "We use fake names because we don't want these people finding us. It's happened, and it was awful. They'll stalk some of the women at gaming conventions. Or they'll send them things in the mail under their real name. There's one girl I work with who's more outgoing; she'll go into the game and chat with players. And this 40-year-old man once said, 'I went to the store today, and I saw something I thought you'd like!' He sent her cat ears. And players sent her a bunch of stuff on Valentine's Day."
FYI: He means fake cat ears you can wear, not actual severed ears
from a stray cat. That's as positive a note as we can end on.
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