U.S. Congressman Wants to Prevent Kids from Buying Smurfberries

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U.S. Congressman Wants to Prevent Kids from Buying Smurfberries

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A representative from Massachusetts asked a federal agency to investigate the AppStore for misleading children into buying virtual items with real money, and the FTC agreed to review the situation.

In the great Smurfberry Kerfuffle of 2011, an 8-year-old girl unwittingly purchased $1400 worth of digital goods while playing the Smurf Village app on her parent's iPad. Although the money was refunded by Apple, the point stands that a child was easily led to make the purchase, and that there isn't enough of a distinction made in such freemium games between transactions that cost real money and those that use fictional currency. In response, Rep. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, wrote a letter suggesting that the Federal Trade Commission look into these kinds of applications. The FTC Chairman, Jon Leibowitz, responded today that he was indeed looking into the Smurfberry problem.

"We fully share your concern that consumers, particularly children, are unlikely to understand the ramifications of these types of purchases," Leibowitz said in a statement. "Let me assure you we will look closely at the current industry practice with respect to the marketing and delivery of these types of applications."

Rep. Markey was quick to link his name once again to the issue by responding with a statement of his own. "What may appear in these games to be virtual coins and prizes to children result in very real costs to parents," said Markey. "I am pleased that the FTC has responded, and as the use of mobile apps continues to increase, I will continue to actively monitor developments in this important area."

The FTC will probably take a while to look into the allegations, but expect to see some kind of policy for freemium or free-to-play Apps in the future. The ramifications for this development are far-reaching for the videogame industry as free-to-play and freemium games are quickly taking over the market, not only with casual games on social networking sites but also so-called hardcore MMOs like LOTRO and Champions Online.

All of these games are now at risk to be regulated by the FTC based on what the commission finds in its review.

Source: Washington Post

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I think some sort of standardized warning label for transactions that will cost real world money is necessary - otherwise developers could just mislead consumers too easily. A mandatory warning would likely reduce accidental and misinformed purchases.

They have warning-labels for other apps, when you are downloading, so why not for this?

Jiefu:
I think some sort of standardized warning label for transactions that will cost real world money is necessary - otherwise developers could just mislead consumers too easily. A mandatory warning would likely reduce accidental and misinformed purchases.

Kids might skip them though.

Unless rather than an "ok" or "accept" button that an quickly be clicked, its one of those popups that ask you to press the word "transaction" in the third sentence of the paragraph...

Just how DOES this game distinguish fictional currency from real currency transactions anyway? Forgive me foe being skeptical but I doubt an eight year old could have been able to tell the difference even with an expressed warning. Hell, even a grown-up can press the wrong button every now and then.

Considering the new territory here, Apple and other providers are in a position to do something loud and clear before the FTC does something that could even be just as harsh on consumers as the companies. But considering Apple's attitude lately, I have my doubts that anything they do will amount to much.
So much for cutting down government....

Jiefu:
I think some sort of standardized warning label for transactions that will cost real world money is necessary - otherwise developers could just mislead consumers too easily. A mandatory warning would likely reduce accidental and misinformed purchases.

That's not a loud and clear action, as games already carry that kind of label for other reasons that a lot of parents are obviously ignoring. You know what one, it comes with E,T,M,AO....
There needs to be a mechanism ingame to make it clear that something is going to get added to your phone bill. Along with needing to put in that a person understands instead of just an OK button. I sure as heck wouldn't say captcha as those are hard enough to read for any John Q Citizen. But having to type out 'I Allow This' or 'Pay the dang thing' might give a child pause and ask Mommy or Daddy for help.

There are better ways for the government to spend its time but this is far from the worst way.

Yeah, there is something wrong with the general design of that game which should be addressed, but the government is definitely the wrong entity to address it.

All transactions that involve actual money should require a password to proceed. Every time you want to purchase.

Johnnyallstar:
Yeah, there is something wrong with the general design of that game which should be addressed, but the government is definitely the wrong entity to address it.

How so? The developers have very little incentive to do it themselves, the issue is minor enough that Apple isn't likely to care about addressing it proactively, and I don't know of any voluntary standards groups (e.g. ESRB) with sway over this.

Regulation is (or at least, should be) primarily focused on making industry responsible for its externalities (both good and bad), and this is a very good example of a time when that at least could be what it winds up being used for.

My understanding is that the smurfberries in question can cost around $60 a barrow. How in any way is that justifiable? Even if marketed to adults I would argue that it was a scam, or at the very least profiteering. When you add children into the mix it's simply reprehensible. Usually I'd say that the authorities should just leave the industry be, but in this case it seems that the industry, and the mighty moralistic Apple of anti-corporate exploitation anti-Microsoftness, has basically been caught with their pants around their ankles.

Screw warning labels, this simply should not be possible, they are selling imaginary consumables for $99 to kids... they are worse then a mother f*ing crack dealer!

To be fair, these things are very similar to scams for stupid people. Sometimes I laugh at how we need a warning label for everything, but there have been so many reports of children idiotically using them w/o parental consent that Congress should at the very least threaten legislation so the companies can enforce their own safeguards

jonnosferatu:

Johnnyallstar:
Yeah, there is something wrong with the general design of that game which should be addressed, but the government is definitely the wrong entity to address it.

How so? The developers have very little incentive to do it themselves, the issue is minor enough that Apple isn't likely to care about addressing it proactively, and I don't know of any voluntary standards groups (e.g. ESRB) with sway over this.

Regulation is (or at least, should be) primarily focused on making industry responsible for its externalities (both good and bad), and this is a very good example of a time when that at least could be what it winds up being used for.

It's best to threaten them with legislation unless they take action on their own. Similar things have happened with regulating film, television, internet, and games in regards of their access to children. All of these industries have their own regulation standards but they need to a threat of government regulation before they undertake their own measures

samsonguy920:
That's not a loud and clear action, as games already carry that kind of label for other reasons that a lot of parents are obviously ignoring. You know what one, it comes with E,T,M,AO....

You know, you appear to have unintentionally made a very good point: let's just put this warning next to the age ratings, then after a few parents are hit with a thousand dollar bills maybe the rest will pay attention the the things and won't buy Dead Space 3 or GTA V for their nine year olds.

jonnosferatu:

Johnnyallstar:
Yeah, there is something wrong with the general design of that game which should be addressed, but the government is definitely the wrong entity to address it.

How so? The developers have very little incentive to do it themselves, the issue is minor enough that Apple isn't likely to care about addressing it proactively, and I don't know of any voluntary standards groups (e.g. ESRB) with sway over this.

Regulation is (or at least, should be) primarily focused on making industry responsible for its externalities (both good and bad), and this is a very good example of a time when that at least could be what it winds up being used for.

I have a little more pessimistic view of government meddling than you do apparently. As far as I see it, it's only a matter of time before the gov abuses any power it gains, especially in terms of regulation. The only way any governmental authority needs to ever get involved in this situation would be in a lawsuit. I have much more confidence in the private market being able to take care of this kind of issue.

How about not leaving kids with 15 minutes of free time as standard, Apple?

Just a COMPLETELY OBVIOUS AND LEGAL STANDPOINT.

Iridul:
My understanding is that the smurfberries in question can cost around $60 a barrow.

The $99 wagon is the one people are most shocked about.

I'm not usually in favor of increased regulation of games, but this smurfberry thing is incredibly unscrupulous. If we do end up with another round of legislation it won't be government's fault (this time), it'll be the people developing 'free' kid's games that are dependant on unbelievably over-priced microtransactions.

(although I don't think $60 up could really be described as 'micro'...)

No. Absolutely not.

Parents, RAISE YOUR CHILDREN YOURSELF! Learn about PC's, yourself! Just because you're ignorant, lazy, busy, stupid, complacent, and/or simply aloof of what your children do from day to day, is NOT a reason for the government to step in and do it for you. Hold parents responsible, make them deal with these companies, do not hold their hands and do it for them.

Death to DLC!!!

...
..sorry.

Okay, I have to side with the parents on this one if no one else will. We are going towards the scifi like future fastern and fastern as days pass. Information technology has a big role in our lifes, did you like it or not. Now days, even young kids have their own cellphones to keep contact with their parents and friends. No matter how hard you try to keep up with the technology, the next generation is already step a head of you. Applications are becoming more userfriendlier and ...more abusive, addictive, marketing works like that. Kids dont play with cone cows these days, they play BO and Angry Birds when they're not running around and screaming.

Dont blame parents for being unaware of Game Industry's marketing strategies. They're not used to the same buttfuck that you have bend to.

8 year olds should NOT be put in a situation like this unattended. RAISE YOUR OWN DAMN CHILDREN!

qbanknight:
It's best to threaten them with legislation unless they take action on their own. Similar things have happened with regulating film, television, internet, and games in regards of their access to children. All of these industries have their own regulation standards but they need to a threat of government regulation before they undertake their own measures

This I agree with.

Johnnyallstar:
I have a little more pessimistic view of government meddling than you do apparently. As far as I see it, it's only a matter of time before the gov abuses any power it gains, especially in terms of regulation. The only way any governmental authority needs to ever get involved in this situation would be in a lawsuit. I have much more confidence in the private market being able to take care of this kind of issue.

Would you mind justifying the bolded statement given that I already provided a discussion of why this is precisely the kind of issue that the private market does not address?

I am hardly optimistic about the results of government intervention in industry (in the U.S., at least), but the limits of the marketplace's capabilities are well-defined. Private firms can and for practical purposes should operate to maximize their own economic input - expecting them to do otherwise is naive. External intervention, government or otherwise, is responsible for minimizing externalities. Changing the system itself would enable a dramatic drop in the macroscopic relevance of these externalities (e.g. the BP oil spill, which could not feasibly have happened without past government intervention in support of industry), but within the bounds of our current situation, the management of these things is one of government's only legitimate roles.

Initially I was willing to blame the parents for things like this - why would you give a child your itunes password when you know it is linked to a credit card?

However, the more I think about it, the more ludicrous the whole situation seems. $99 for an ingame item? Everyone was up in arms over Horse Armour in Oblivion, and that only a one off purchase of $2.50! Not to mention the way this scam unashamedly takes advantage of children and their lack of understanding regarding in-game purchases. I bet a lot of adults have trouble with the concept too.

In Apple's defense there is an option to restrict in-game purchases, but it's not immediately obvious and the default is set to allow them. I think there also needs to be an option to turn off the 15 minute window where no password needs to be entered.

The sad truth is though that short of stopping it all together there are still going to be people who just don't understand the technology and will continue to get burned by situtions like this.

In the end, what I said at the top of this post still stands - "don't give your 8-year-old your itunes password you dumb son-of-a- #@*$&!!1!?%[email protected]#£"

Well, I'm happy to see a politician taking a stand on an actual issue in the games industry. Though I think charging this much for anything so valueless should be criminal to begin with (although it can be argued that properly warned adults should have the freedom to make their own decisions).

Password protection and distinct warning labels would be a very good move. That way, it is actually simply stupid decision-making that is at fault.

If you won't police yourself the government will do it for you.

A simple fix would be a child-lock of sorts that can be applied to any application that you can purchase items in. That way a parent can flag Smurf Village and require a password to unlock on top of the requirement to be logged in to iTunes.

jonnosferatu:

qbanknight:
It's best to threaten them with legislation unless they take action on their own. Similar things have happened with regulating film, television, internet, and games in regards of their access to children. All of these industries have their own regulation standards but they need to a threat of government regulation before they undertake their own measures

This I agree with.

Johnnyallstar:
I have a little more pessimistic view of government meddling than you do apparently. As far as I see it, it's only a matter of time before the gov abuses any power it gains, especially in terms of regulation. The only way any governmental authority needs to ever get involved in this situation would be in a lawsuit. I have much more confidence in the private market being able to take care of this kind of issue.

Would you mind justifying the bolded statement given that I already provided a discussion of why this is precisely the kind of issue that the private market does not address?

In the article itself, the issue was resolved without direct government involvement. gbanknight mentioned lawsuits, and if enough duplicate problems spring, they will no doubt take preventative actions to avoid a costly lawsuit down the road. Generally, if a business can avoid a lawsuit, they will do what is necessary to do so, because it is in their interest. The developers apparently made the purchasing system too easy, and are most likely going to address it simply to get out of possible future lawsuits. No gov regulation necessary.

It's unfortunate that the situation even got this far, but it's a very real problem. It's a children's game that purposely hid transactions to make it confusing. Farmville had the same problem and had to completely redo their micro-transaction system.

More importantly, there is no mention of the link between virtual smurfberry usage and violent, rape-crazy behavior.

Congress needs to investigate some of THAT

Johnnyallstar:
In the article itself, the issue was resolved without direct government involvement. You mentioned lawsuits, and if enough duplicate problems spring, they will no doubt take preventative actions to avoid a costly lawsuit down the road. Generally, if a business can avoid a lawsuit, they will do what is necessary to do so, because it is in their interest. The developers apparently made the purchasing system too easy, and are most likely going to address it simply to get out of possible future lawsuits. No gov regulation necessary.

1) The fact that this instance of the issue was addressed in the long run does not change the presence of the externality in question, nor does it provide any evidence against the possibility that future incidents of lesser magnitude may go unnoticed.

2) Given the relative lack of frequency with which such problems have been brought to light, it does not appear that any direct action on a scale sufficient to motivate corporate policy changes will occur from within the industry - a single large refund resulting from one extreme case is not sufficient grounds for a firm to revise its policies.

3) The chances of a sufficiently damaging lawsuit being raised and completed to the satisfaction of any plaintiff(s) are very low - the developers did not do anything ostensibly illegal, and the costs associated with a lawsuit (particularly the additional costs often incurred by the plaintiff if the court finds in favor of the defendant) render it a negligible risk.

death to farmville!

Mornelithe:
No. Absolutely not.

Parents, RAISE YOUR CHILDREN YOURSELF! Learn about PC's, yourself! Just because you're ignorant, lazy, busy, stupid, complacent, and/or simply aloof of what your children do from day to day, is NOT a reason for the government to step in and do it for you. Hold parents responsible, make them deal with these companies, do not hold their hands and do it for them.

You do realize this is a smurf game targeted at kids beneath the age of 10?

The parents should not have to montitor their kids when they are playing such games. They should be able to take it for granted that their kids won't find them self's in harms way while playing a fucking smurfs game.

Scabadus:

samsonguy920:
That's not a loud and clear action, as games already carry that kind of label for other reasons that a lot of parents are obviously ignoring. You know what one, it comes with E,T,M,AO....

You know, you appear to have unintentionally made a very good point: let's just put this warning next to the age ratings, then after a few parents are hit with a thousand dollar bills maybe the rest will pay attention the the things and won't buy Dead Space 3 or GTA V for their nine year olds.

Yaknowwhut? You may be on to something.

I have to say that I hope we don't get more articles about smurfberries. It gets me hungry.

If my kid is buying smurfberries at whatever price, how the hell did my 8-year old get a hold of my financials to do so?

You don't give an 8-year old your credit card and an account to e-bay, so HOW is this child spending your money on an iPad?

You don't hand your 8-yo a loaded gun, you don't give your 8-yo the keys to your car, and you CERTAINLY do not hand your 8-yo access to your accounts. Lock that shit down.

jonnosferatu:

Johnnyallstar:
In the article itself, the issue was resolved without direct government involvement. You mentioned lawsuits, and if enough duplicate problems spring, they will no doubt take preventative actions to avoid a costly lawsuit down the road. Generally, if a business can avoid a lawsuit, they will do what is necessary to do so, because it is in their interest. The developers apparently made the purchasing system too easy, and are most likely going to address it simply to get out of possible future lawsuits. No gov regulation necessary.

[quote]3) The chances of a sufficiently damaging lawsuit being raised and completed to the satisfaction of any plaintiff(s) are very low - the developers did not do anything ostensibly illegal, and the costs associated with a lawsuit (particularly the additional costs often incurred by the plaintiff if the court finds in favor of the defendant) render it a negligible risk.

I'm not sure about in the states, but in Canada there is a little aspect of contract law (which transactions online certainly qualify) which basically makes it so that children under the age of majority cannot enter into contracts on their own. As a result, if it is possible to undo the transaction, the parents can actually have such a transaction reversed, because the child is not of age of consent, and consent is one of the necessary pillars of every contract.

The only exception to this is if the minor is making a contract for something essential, a necessity. In this case, there can be no take-backs. Food, for instance is a necessity, and therefore cannot be taken back. Digital items, on the other hand, are definately necessities.

This is one reason why companies don't enter into agreements with children, but do enter into agreements with adults. Tho, in this case, account security is the parent's responsibility. It is wholy the parents responsibility to lock down their iPad so that kids can't buy stuff when they're not around. Again, you don't hand 10 year olds your credit card.

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