As the video game market continually expands and reaches new adherents it is primordial to raise certain concerns on how companies manage their business models. The problem is not that an ever-growing number of potential buyers arise everyday it’s the fact that the demographic range of players has been widening over the past few years. There’s certainly more adults playing video games than ever before but there’s also an increasing number of younger and much younger individuals enjoying interactive entertainment. With the rise of free-to-play model (the born again and more controlled version of the previous phenomenon of “shareware”) I think there are some thoughts that we should be acknowledging when marketing and designing games for children. For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on describing why free-to-play games should probably stay out of children’s reach (well… the most vicious ones at least).
Free-to-play is an economic model of play where a user is not charged for installing the game but rather to obtain access to different areas or items by voluntarily and individually paying for them. Most of those games contain very detailed and almost forced rules explanations (tutorials) so that a user can quickly understand the concept of the game in every possible way. This is primarily done in a way to avoid frustration of learning without guidance and minimizing the risk of the user simply quitting the application. My first concern here is that those types of experiences somehow kill some of the vital analytical process that’s going on in a children’s mind. The analog game where you need to put different shapes into different types of shaped holes isn’t there for nothing. The child simply understands at some point that certain types of shapes only fits into certain types of holes. It’s a process, which I think is vital to child normal development: the kids find the rules to this particular situation by using their own intellectual process. This is something that is most of the time called learning. In a situation where a game tells you everything you need to know about it, even in the littlest details, there’s somewhat no place left for learning and exploration. It’s rather a process of stuffing one individual with parameters and rules to follow. Now, if one child consumes a lot of those products, chances are that they might expect this type of lengthy introduction to be included in other areas of their life. They might expect that every given thing or real life situation would come with an instruction manual and that most things need to be laid out for them to be understood. In other words, little to no efforts are required on their end for understanding how things work. This is an extrapolation for sure, but still something to consider.
As I said earlier, this type of interactive entertainment has a built-in market, which enables players to consult a list of vital or crucial items that renders the game playable or easier to play once bought. Basically, one individual needs to invest money repeatedly in order to overcome challenges that wouldn’t be achievable otherwise. We can definitely argue about the long-term effects of that type of system on a child’s mind. A kid might think that there’s always some sort of work around difficult situations, something that can be done quickly in order to settle things. The difficulties of real life usually do not provide easy quick paths such as “buy” this to resolve “this”. Training young children in these types of behaviours will not help them to understand and plan long-term strategies in order to resolve certain issues. I do not think that games should always teach about how to overcome difficult challenges, I’m just concerned about what they convey and what type of message kids get from them. Children also have the disadvantage of being more prone to certain behaviours such as small immediate rewards conveyed by a lack of development of the prefrontal cortex (as noted by Ramin Shokrizade on his blog post named “Monetizing Children” on Gamasutra). The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that is the slowest to develop and that matures at around the age of 25. This area is also responsible for most important long-term projections and making decisions based on “good judgment”. Kids are then not only psychologically vulnerable to this type of game but also biologically hindered. Creating addictive free-to-play games designed to target younger audiences would then be a very unwise and downright evil economic decision to make.