Until today, I had assumed that the Federal Trade Commission had no interest or influence in the world of video games, affecting as much change to our hobby as the Better Business Bureau or online petitions (that is to say, basically none). Boy, was I wrong. CVG News reports that the FTC is effectively strong-arming Apple into refunding $32.5 million of expenses linked to in-app purchases kids made without parental consent. And while it's nice that little Tommy's parents will get back the hundred bucks he blew on Smurfberries, the news definitely raises some worrying questions that reach beyond mobile gaming.
First off, how in the hell will Apple sift through 37,000 claims and verify that they were all made by kids with no concept of pay-to-play? The FTC took particular concern with the App Store's purchasing policy, where confirmation is only required for an initial transaction before giving the buyer free reign for the next 15 minutes. Kid whines for his parent's credit card info, parent hastily enters it to appease the offspring, kid unknowingly (or more likely knowingly) goes on a spending spree before the validated account info expires.
Only, what if the kids never got involved? Couldn't a parent who's addicted to Smurfs' Village, FarmVille, or any variety of horrendous free-to-play mobile games lose themselves to a microtransaction fervor? Perhaps the next day, hungover from the rush of time coins, friendship points, or booster vouchers, they looked at their bank balance and realized how irresponsible their spending had been. What's stopping them from pinning it on the innocence of their dopey child?
The FTC's announcement seems to be the payoff of investigations that started as far back as 2011. Jon Leibowitz, then-chairman of the FTC, wrote that "consumers, particularly children, are unlikely to understand the ramifications of these types of purchases." Uh-oh. Couldn't that statement be made about randomized microtransactions that clutter dozens of the latest games? Say I really, really wanted a special class from a Mass Effect 3 booster pack, or a kickin' new Tauntaun mount in a Star Wars: The Old Republic Cartel Pack (I didn't plan the common EA thread, it just happened). If I went through 100 purchases and never got the item I wanted, how was I supposed to know the odds? It could be construed that I didn't, in Leibowitz's words, "understand the ramifications" of how stupidly I was spending my money.
Author Rob Fahey claims that some microtransactions are "explicitly designed to convince people to spend money on things they don't actually want...they disproportionately target people who are bad at delayed gratification or not educated about such underhanded tactics." In other words, the most insidious in-game purchases are like Jedi mind tricks, subversively coercing us into reaching for our wallets again and again. If the FTC could somehow be convinced that I felt exploited by a free-to-play game, could I reverse hundreds in microtransaction expenditures scot-free? It'd be like getting away with the murder of my bank account by pleading temporary, freemium-induced insanity.
Of course, all this is postulation, and I don't have the answers to these questions. And even if the FTC can convince Apple to reimburse millions in microtransations, that'd just be a drop in Apple's $15 billion bucket. But it's interesting to imagine: If big companies can be forced to refund money spent by the gullible minds of children, what happens to deluded adults who seem incapable of breaking their microtransaction addiction? Because in both cases, it could be said that they just didn't know any better.