The XX Factor

Beware the $1,400 Smurfberries

I’d always thought of the Smurfs as having a fairly communist village set-up, what with all the sharing and helping and all, but apparently the lure of money to be made by in-game sales billed directly to Mom and Dad’s iTunes account was too much temptation for the little blue dudes (and the lone dudette). The Washington Post reports that over winter break “8-year-old Madison worked to dress up her simple mushroom home on the iPhone game Smurfs’ Village. In doing so, she also amassed a $1,400 bill from Apple .”

While I’d question the use of the word “work” in that last sentence, if you’re a parent who lets your child play games on your iTouch, iPhone or iPad (or has given one of those pricey toys to your tot for his or her very own), then stop shaking your head over poor Madison’s foolish mother, who gave up her iTunes password, and consider how these things really work. Take, for example, the cautionary tale of Brent Goldberg, a software engineer who agreed to download the Dolphins Play game for his two young sons. He entered the password himself and handed them the device, not knowing or forgetting that iTunes has a 15 minute window that allows you to make additional purchases without another password (and note that you enter your password even for a free download). The boys spent $52 buying coins to play with the dolphins within the game. (They said they thought it was just “computer money.”)

In-app sales are new, and they’ve been touted not only as a lucrative business model for gaming start-ups, but as a way to “create a new economy for newspapers, record labels and movie studios” struggling to make money online. But in games like Smurfs’ Village, the sense of bait and switch is palpable. The game itself is free, but once downloaded, it continually invites you to spend real money to amass the game’s currency, “smurfberries,” more quickly. It’s easy to see how a kid would click on whatever she needed to to see her “Smurfs” and their homes and crops grow more quickly and consider those clicks as no more than part of the game. No adult would make that mistake (and the game’s description now warns that the game “charges real money for in-app content” and that iOS will leave the iTunes password active for 15 minutes after download). The company that created Smurfs’ Village says it does not want to lure consumers into inadvertent purchases. (Madison’s mom got a refund.) But this is a game considered suitable for 4-year-olds and up. What do the words “real money is required” mean to a kid that young, assuming she can read them?

They mean more work for Mom and Dad.

It’s hard enough to teach a kid the meaning of a real dollar. Gift and credit cards added another level of challenge, and iTunes still another-but the concept of paying “real money,” which may never take on a physical form, for virtual goods is truly difficult to grasp. We can (and parents have) argue that it’s Apple’s responsibility to prevent the accidental paying of $99 for a bucket of smurfberries, but all the parental controls in the world aren’t going to teach a kid to handle the power of iTunes credit when it’s finally within his grasp. That’s a real-world job for real-world parents, even if it means sitting next to your kid while she “works” to “dress up her simple mushroom home” and holding her piggy bank and requiring a real world payment for that $19 bucket of snowflakes. In the long run, that’s probably time, and even money, well spent.