Written by Jory Des Jardins, CMO of The @ Company
A case study for parents, marketers, and anyone who thinks they understand gaming apps for kids.
The note came from a parent in my daughter’s 4th grade class: The holidays were approaching, she noted, and her daughter-like presumably most of her classmates in lockdown-mandated Northern California-would be holed up over winter break with not much face-to-face interaction. Would any of our kids care to join her daughter on Roblox?
Accepting this offer seemed to me a no-brainer. I was already familiar with the gaming platform known for having fun, kid-appropriate experiences with characters that resembled Lego characters, but gummier. Since early March of 2020 my kids’ schooling and social lives have been relegated to the Internet. And while initially the novelty of not having to get up as early for school and Zooming their besties kept them engaged, ten months in the bloom was off the rose. My husband and I usually worked through the afternoons, leaving them increasingly isolated. The prospect of having my kids engage socially while still being online seemed like a viable way to keep them safely interacting with others.
My older daughter, 10, set up the app on her phone and my younger one on a family tablet. As with all apps they downloaded, I was notified by Apple and had to approve the download. I made it part-way through a lengthy terms and conditions clause and just scanned for the usual COPA language. Being an internet professional, I was familiar with privacy policies and knew what to look for.
My girls spent a good portion of their holiday break blissed out in online paintball matches and getting adopted by others. My 8-year-old opened a virtual restaurant on Roblox and handled the various tasks that entailed-from cooking the food to taking orders, and even cleaning up. Her restaurant, originally a small burger joint, had expanded to include global cuisines. She had earned enough capital in the platform, called “Robux,” to expand her space, add a drive-thru, hire two “operators,” two chefs, and four waitstaff, one of which was her best friend in real life and the other her older sister, who apparently was struggling to find her footing in the virtual world and needed the Robux. The rest of her staff, my 8-year-old explained, were “NPCs” or “Non-Player Characters.”
My 10 year old would fill me in on her little sister’s progress: She was becoming quite the Mac-Mommy of the virtual pre-Tweener entrepreneurial set. She even had attracted business saboteurs who parked in her drive-thru, forcing her to temporarily close it down. She opened up additional businesses, including a lemonade stand, BBQ stand, and an ice cream truck.
The businesses were paying off. By New Years Day, my daughter had amassed a virtual empire befitting a virtual Kardashian. She owned seven homes including a seven-story luxury apartment, a home entertainment system, a pizza oven, a donut-making set, a glider, three Formula 1 cars (because they came in a pack, she explained), three royal carriages, all of the inventory in a local toy shop and a surf shop, a collection of teapots, luxury strollers and custom baby rattles (those, she explained were bought when she had been adopted by less-affluent parents in AdoptMe and realized she would need to spring herself for the finer things).
And to top it all off she was drowning in Friend requests — by her estimation, “like, four screens of them.”
The first full week in January we all went back to our remote workstations. My daughters both seemed renewed. I found myself back on hours of Zoom calls and even bragged to some of my team of digital natives how my enterprising daughter had become a virtual mogul.
I didn’t even notice the first few emails from Apple.
I’m quite used to receiving these micro-receipts from Apple-a monthly storage upgrade fee here, a song purchase there. And I was far too busy at work to even check my personal email account. But on day two I noticed them: A string of emails from Apple-more than I’d ever received before. And more were trickling in.
I opened one: it was for $9.99, for 880 Robux. There were at least 15 more emails that followed.
“Please,” I thought, “Please be teeny tiny $.99 charges.”
I checked another one, and it looked like this.
And another one.
About mid-way through the flurry I forwarded one to my husband, subject line:
My mind went in several immediate directions. First I thought, someone had stolen my credit card number. I knew my kids played on Roblox, but they knew the rules: No purchases without asking. And don’t bother asking, because we don’t approve purchases. Second, I thought someone at Apple was running an experiment to see how many customer charges would lead to heart failure.
I called my older daughter into my office, who called it immediately: It was my 8-year-old. She must have run out of Robux she’d earned on the platform and was now on a shopping spree — paying with real money. My money.
Not aware that she had crossed over from virtual currency to Mom’s credit card, my daughter was duly upset, more from the realization that she would not get to buy that high rise she’d been eyeing, but at least she understood that she could no longer purchase on the platform. The charges stopped.
Total spent during her two-day shopping spree: just over $500.
It now occurred to me why she had so many friend requests: She was like those kids on TikTok who get followers when they show off their in-house elevators and Maseratis:
In essence, she’d bought them.
Suffice it to say my little Kardashian was not punished. While I thought my husband would lose it upon hearing about the charges he laughed nervously and said we were getting our just desserts for not being more aware of what our kids were doing online. Being an “internet professional,” I’ll admit I’m embarrassed that I let this happen.
And I’m concerned — DEEPLY CONCERNED — for that very reason. That this process was not even clear to me is troubling.
Think if I had not discovered my child’s activity for a week? Think if I was unemployed, underemployed, or an essential worker who could not monitor my child’s involvement all day and had discovered, on top of my growing bills, $500 in charges for virtual doodads alongside my charges for groceries and healthcare co-pays?
Back when I was at the influencer media and marketing startup I co-founded, we had a saying to help explain to brands why seemingly over-the-top disclosure with consumers was essential:
“We don’t mind paying for things; we just want to be told when to bring our purse.”
Does this mean, had I been asked to approve $500 of virtual goods for my daughter that I would have? No. But seeing my daughter so engaged socially with others and even learning the fundamentals of running a business I might have approved $20. And then, if she continued to have a positive experience, I might have given her a monthly budget.
But now? She’s gone from 50,000 Robux to Nobux. I trust that, now that she’s aware, she will do the right thing and be more careful, but not that the Internet will.
All this is solvable, of course, but the solution lies with the platform: It starts with great UI: User Intention. And a commitment — or more accurately, FAITH — that short-term care for an end-user’s well-being, even if this care cuts into immediate revenue, can lead to long-term trust.
Internet companies can always show you the T&Cs you signed, proof of compliance through a morass of legalese. They can prove disclosure. But disclosure without good User Intention does not beget trust.
A MESSAGE FROM OUR SPONSOR: The @ Company
UPDATE: THIS EVENT IS BEING POSTPONED. New dates to come:
Parents, marketers, humans: While I’m all riled up about best online practices for families, I hope you will join me on February 11 for a discussion with parenting influencer Brandi Riley, founder of girl-gaming app Royelles Múkami Kinoti Kimotho, and Girard Kelly of Common Sense Media about how we big people can manage our family units during the Pandemic and protect our kids from becoming the 21st Century equivalent of Jimmy Jet and His TV Set. Our discussion, The Remote Family: Managing screen time, avoiding online withdrawal, and maintaining sanity during the Pandemicwill touch on the threats of imposed online existence and look at practical and policy solutions for families.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.