A Simple Case of Bad Parenting?
As another child racks up a huge bill on Xbox Live, we shouldn't be surprised that consumers are still confused by online transactions
The guy's an idiot, a liar, or both - and a terrible parent either way. That pretty much sums up the general internet response to the story of Sam Ghera, a man whose 12 year-old son, Nik, splurged £1,150 over Xbox Live without, we are assured, his dad not having the faintest clue until he was neck deep in the red.
Now, rather than laying any of the blame on his son (who I'm sure couldn't believe his luck), or taking any responsibility himself, he pointed the finger at Microsoft for not doing more to help him and other parents "stop our kids from making payments on our cards."
"Ghera's case is a timely reminder for the games industry that all the systems and safeguards in the world are of little use if your consumers don't understand them"
Alas, for Mr Ghera, the details of the story don't read well for him. He entered his credit card details in the first place to pay for the Xbox Live sub and to authorise the account. Online activity is turned off by default on kids' profiles, as Microsoft pointed out in its statement to the Daily Mail, with a comprehensive range of controls available to parents in Family Settings.
Furthermore, we are asked to believe that he didn't check his bank account or statements for six months - and, we must assume, ignored all the purchase notification emails from Microsoft sent to the address he would have inputted when he added his credit card details. He blames Microsoft Points, claiming his son "didn't realise he was using real money", even when the cash sum is displayed during the transaction process. And to top it all, he cheerfully allows his 12 year-old to play the 18-rated Call of Duty.
If the story sounds familiar, it's because the Daily Mail ran an almost identical article (right down to the composition of the photo) last year, in that case about an 11 year-old who racked up a £1,000 bill on Xbox Live using his mum's credit card.
Once more the poor, blameless parent, Dawn Matthews, claimed she thought she was just paying for an online subscription, criticising Microsoft for allowing "someone of his age to make payments without any checks being done". Because that's exactly what happened, isn't it, Mrs Matthews?
The issue isn't restricted to Xbox, of course. In April, the Daily Mail invoked its favourite headline formula yet again to report on a US court case instigated by "parents whose children have accidentally run up huge bills playing games on their iPhones".
Sneering at the perpetrators of such rank stupidity quickly turns into a gleeful group activity in comment threads and conversations as we smugly lay into what seems at best breathtaking naivety.
"The main reason to employ such a system is to take the transaction one step further away from reality"
But for all the undoubted foolishness of people like Sam Ghera, I can't help but feel some sympathy for confused parents in general - and Mr Ghera's case is a timely reminder for the games industry that all the systems and safeguards in the world are of little use if your consumers don't understand them or know they're there.
The dangers for consumers of credit card usage versus real money have long been understood. The more steps away from the handing over of actual cash a purchase is, the less real it feels and, therefore, the easier it is to make. Consider the terrifyingly seductive simplicity of Amazon's One Click service - I've bought far too much stuff that way, figuring I could worry about the cost later, which in many cases I would never have paid for in coins and notes at a till. As Ghera told the Mail: "With Xbox Live you just press a button and then your money's gone". All too easy?
Let's not forget that Apple, under pressure, added an extra layer of password security to transactions last year. Why? Because kids were buying things willy-nilly in the window following an initial purchase without their parents realising. A situation that was exploited ruthlessly by certain developers, most notably the creator of Smurfs Village - which even caught out the UK games industry's key supporter in Government, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, whose children, then four and two, bought a £60 content add-on just after he had installed the app.
Any company, including Microsoft, that uses virtual currencies cannot claim to be entirely innocent here either. After all, the main reason to employ such a system in the first place is to take the transaction one step further away from reality, making it more difficult for shoppers to know exactly what things cost and what they're spending.
And the concept of freemium is built on the psychological exploit of the free sample, presenting itself as a gift which puts unconscious pressure on the recipient to return the gesture with a purchase. It's little wonder so many consumers are rendered bamboozled by these options.
A related and no less important factor is trust. On one level, the technophobic are more likely to view computers as intelligent systems that will prevent them from doing anything stupid, when in reality they are dumb machines that only do as they are told. Lest we forget, the global financial crisis was caused in large part by the hubris of too-clever-by-half bankers and their impenetrable computer models and algorithms, which in the end even they didn't understand.
"There's never been a shortage of wily and confusing techniques employed by the industry to encourage parents to buy games"
What made the PSN hacking crisis headline news last year was not that you or I were particularly likely to be defrauded as a result. It was the uncomfortable realisation that a brand and service we had blindly put our trust in had proved so cavalier with our personal details.
Similarly, take the recent controversy over scam games on the App Store. When consumers buy into the expensive, closed ecosystem of Apple they reasonably assume they can shop with confidence since, as everything has been approved by Apple, it must be legitimate, right? The rip-offs and copycats that have plagued the store are designed explicitly to exploit this unquestioning faith.
How does any of this relate to Sam Ghera and his embarrassing failure to pay attention to what his child was doing on his Xbox? Firstly, while we are in the laudable position of having fantastic, tech-leading family controls and systems in place - and have done for many years - too many parents still don't understand what it is they're dealing with or supposed to be doing.
In a perversely gratifying sense, then, the Daily Mail's report has actually done the industry a great service, as I'd wager more than a few parents would have winced at the article and quietly scurried away to check on their own bank balances and account settings.
And it's a situation that usefully opens the door for organisations like UKIE. Just 13 days (we hope) from the formal handover of ratings authority from the BBFC to PEGI, the UKIE-funded askaboutgames.com site has relaunched, with a renewed focus on providing families with information on parental controls, age ratings and general advice on safer gaming - all part of an industry-funded awareness campaign.
Irrespective of whose number is on the box, parents aren't suddenly going to stop their kids playing Call of Duty overnight - indeed, lots never will. All the industry can strive for - whether it be understanding how DLC works or what ratings mean - is that they are able to make an informed decision.
It'd be very easy for games companies to shrug it all off and say: "You've got your parental controls; we've sorted age ratings out; it's no longer our problem, sunshine". So it's encouraging to see collective responsibility over getting the message out there with as much clarity as possible - after all, there's never been a shortage of wily and confusing techniques employed by the industry to encourage parents to buy games.
Still, there's still only so much any campaign can usefully achieve. Which is why, as Sam Ghera and Dawn Matthews ought to have known, responsibility truly begins at home. But at least we can all help with that.