How video game players can protect themselves from microtransactions

Gamers and parents need to be informed about the games and consoles they purchase in order to avoid exorbitant in-game fees, says video game expert.

Companies are trying to 'nickel and dime' consumers, says video games expert

Dad says no more Xbox after $8K game bill

7 years ago
Duration 1:51
Ontario's Lance Perkins' credit card was charged $7,625.88 after a series of purchases made by his 17-year-old son during an Xbox gam
In the video game industry, a "whale" is a gamer who spends an exorbitant amount of money, sometimes thousands of dollars, on supplementary content for games they've already purchased. 
Game consoles like the Xbox One have settings to disable or limit the amount of in-game purchasing. (Oliver Berg/EPA)

Ontario's Lance Perkins unwittingly became a "whale" after his credit card was billed $7,625.88 in December 2015, accrued from a series of in-game purchases made by his 17-year-old son while he was playing a soccer game on his Xbox.

Microtransactions, or in-game purchasing of virtual goods, were introduced by developers to "extend the monetization of games," said Victor Lucas, creator and host of Vancouver-based Electric Playground, a daily news show that focuses on movies, television and video games.

In certain games, real-life dollars, transferred via credit card, are converted into in-game currency that allows gamers to purchase customizable features, like outfits and upgrades to playable characters, and extra game content — sometimes known as downloadable content — such as new missions, game maps and songs for music-based games like Guitar Hero.

Visitors play a soccer game at the Paris Games week show in October 2014. A 17-year-old Ontario boy racked up thousands of dollars of in-game purchases while playing a FIFA soccer game after mistakenly believing his purchase was a one-time fee. (Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty)

Companies are trying to "nickel and dime" consumers in an attempt to create after-market value and return customers for their product, said Lucas.

"In a sense, it's like the old arcade where you have to keep dropping in quarters in order to keep playing the game," he said. "It's a compulsive loop scenario where it keeps a gamer playing and purchasing new content. There's not a lot of fun in that."

"It's a little bit desperate and can be very dangerous," he added.

Here are some ways consumers and parents can avoid seeing thousands of dollars of downloadable content billed to their credit cards.

Know the mechanics

Lucas suggests gamers and parents should know the ins and outs of the games and gaming consoles they purchase, and parents should even play the games with their kids.

"Video games are an interactive medium," said Lucas. "Parents have to educate themselves and learn the mechanics of the games their kids are playing."

By playing the games, Lucas said, parents can encounter the in-game purchase prompts themselves and learn their specifications in order to make informed decisions.

In the case of the man saddled with nearly $8,000 in charges for a video soccer game, the son said he thought the payment was a one-time fee, but was ultimately charged numerous times for in-game purchases.

Lucas said there are parental controls on gaming consoles that can disable or limit the amount of purchasing you can do.

Lance Perkins flips through a printout of the $7,625.88 in credit card charges he was issued after his 17-year-old son made a series of in-game Xbox purchases without his knowledge. (CBC)

Read the label

As with films and television, the gaming industry has a regulatory body, in this case the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which assigns age and content ratings for video games.

Lucas said the board includes disclaimers about in-game purchases, and some games even advertise the fact that they include downloadable content.

Disclaimers are also shown in the initial loading screen when you start playing a game, he said.

"There are lots of warning signs [for in-game purchases] when you boot up a game and parents should be aware of them," said Lucas.

Prepaid gift cards

Depending on the console platform, gamers can purchase gift cards through the console or in a physical store.

The cards are loaded with a prepaid amount of in-game currency, which can in turn purchase downloadable content.

While some may argue microtransactions are not necessary to enjoy video games, Lucas said they are part of the new pay-to-play business model for game developers and are unlikely to go away any time soon.

"This is part of the economy of how these companies make their games," he said. "Content takes a back seat to the way it's monetized."

After a Pembroke man saw an $8000 credit card bill when his son unwittingly made multiple in-game purchases on an Xbox, All in a Day asks a local game developer about the ethics of making such spending so easy.


Justin Li

Senior News Writer

Justin Li is a senior news writer based in Toronto.


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