Roblox is free to download - but in-app currency can mean there’s a steep price to pay.
Rachael Davies and her husband were reluctant to let their three kids go free-range on games during lockdown. But with both grown-ups attempting to work from home, they felt they had little choice.
Nothing unusual there. Market research company Kids Insights found 8.8 million kids were playing computer games in lockdown.
The Davies’ eight-year-old, Isabella, homed in on Roblox, the massively popular interactive gaming platform where kids create and play games while chatting.
Isabella loved Roblox. In fact, she loved it so very much, she promptly ran up a tab of £900 in in-app purchases. That’s 1,645 AUD.
“I nearly fainted,” her mum told The Times last week. “I cried all night.”
And she kept crying the next morning, after contacting Roblox - only to be told her the issue was between her and Apple.
Rachael and her husband had no idea that Roblox - which is free to download - uses a virtual, in-app currency called Robux, which kids buy with real cash.
But Apple’s refund policy had a 60-day limit, so the Davies were offered only a partial refund. (Isabella, it turned out, had been splashing out on in-app purchases for over four months.) It wasn’t until Times journalists intervened that the family were refunded in full.
“I accept our role in this but, in my defence, I am very green with technology when it comes to gaming and didn’t realise that my husband’s card was directly linked to the iPad.”
In fact, Rachael and her husband had no idea that Roblox - which is free to download - uses a virtual, in-app currency called Robux, which kids buy with real cash.
It’s possible to play without Robux, and lots of kids do. But the temptation to spend up big on virtual merch - costumes, pets, weapons or special in-game powers - is ever-present. And the social pressure to do so can be intense.
In fact, kids who play without these virtual accessories often report being teased online by others.
How "free" is a free game?
Many parents are unaware that this is the way “free” games are monetized - that is, made profitable - by their developers. For example, In its first year as a free download, Fortnite grossed over US$1 billion in revenue from in-app purchases.
Perth-based mum-of-two Jessica Hill is a former intelligence analyst with the Western Australian Police Force, and now Community Manager for Family Zone - so it’s fair to say she knows a thing or two about online risks.
So when she noticed an unexplained $500 charge on her App Store account, she assumed it was an error. Asked by Apple customer service if by any chance her daughter knew her password, Jess laughed. “Matilda is FIVE,” she replied. “Of course she doesn’t.”
Then she heard her daughter sobbing in the background. “Yes, I do, Mummy!” she confessed.
Turns out that the precocious Year One had learned Jessica’s 9-digit password - comprising uppercase and special characters, no less - by looking over her shoulder.
Often, children like Isabella and Matilda are making large purchases quite by accident - or at least unknowingly. It’s tricky enough for the grown-ups to figure out what’s going on, let alone the kids.
What parents can do
Luckily, there are a number of ways parents can prevent kids’ online spending.
On their Apple devices, you can set up a Family Sharing group and turn on “Ask to Buy” on every child’s device.
If they are using a parent’s device, go to Settings, then iTunes & App Store and set to “always require” a password for purchases. (But first be sure your child doesn’t know what the password is!)
On Google Play, go to the Menu and tap Settings, then scroll down to Require Authentication for Purchases. This will then apply to any device that is linked to that Google account.
Even easier, you can use Family Zone. Family Zone lets you control exactly which app purchases your children are allowed to buy. You can also quickly block all in-app purchases on every device - and every operating system - your children use.