LONDON – It’s 4.30 on a gloomy winter’s afternoon. I’m sitting with my grandson having one of those conversations in which grandsons explain complicated stuff to their grandads. He is 4 years old, omniscient in the way that 4-year-olds are, and tolerant of my ignorance of important matters.
The conversation turns to computing and he inquires whether I have Talking Tom Cat on my iPad. “No,” I say. “What is it?” He explains that it’s a cool game that his grandma has on her iPad. There is a cat called Tom who listens to what you say to him and then repeats it in a funny voice. Also there’s a dog who does funny things.
So I dig out my iPad and we head over to the App Store where, sure enough, Talking Tom Cat 2 is available as a free download. A few minutes later it’s running on my iPad. A scamp in feline form stands looking quizzically at me. As I speak, he cups a paw to his ear, listens intently, and then repeats what I say in a high-pitched voice. The animation is beautifully done and nicely rendered. It is indeed, as my grandson observed, “cool.”
He shows me how, if you click on an icon on the left-hand side of the screen, a naughty dog enters the picture. The traditional animosity between dogs and cats is then enacted. My grandson next delightedly points out another icon which, when pressed, causes the dog to fart noisily, and Tom to hold his nose disdainfully. At this my grandson laughs uproariously, and the farting procedure is repeated ad nauseam.
In an attempt to stem this flow of lavatorial humor, I ask him what else Tom can do. Well, explains my grandson, you can dress him up. You can, for example, give him a funny hat. Or make him wear heart-shaped sunglasses. This is accomplished by pressing on a clothes-hanger icon which brings up a list of items including hats, eyewear, accessories and a category labeled “seasonal.” Each item costs a number of gold coins. The heart-shaped sunglasses, for example, cost 1,099 coins, and we only have the 254 we were granted when we first opened the app.
So how do we acquire the dosh needed for the sunglasses? There appear to be two ways: The first involves playing a tedious game in which Tom has to tiptoe and leap across a range of precipitous columns; the second involves shelling out some real money for them. Seventy-four thousand of them will cost you £17.49 (¥3,000), which represents an exchange rate of 4,231 Tomcoins to the pound.
At this point, the scales fall from even grandfather’s eyes. Here we have the business model for the game (which has had more than 270 million downloads). It’s our old friend the in-app purchase. Now, you might think that it’s a dirty trick to sneak hard cash transactions into a charming game designed for 4-year-olds, but I couldn’t possibly comment, if only because I can hear the sound of stampeding lawyers pointing out that a decision to purchase said coins brings up a charming image of a child handing an iPad to a benevolent adult, followed by a dialogue box requiring one to enter a password for an iTunes store account. What could be safer than that?
Actually, in the world inhabited by my grandson and millions more like him, it’s not really much of a safeguard at all. He’s surrounded by people who have iTunes accounts, and all he needs to do in order to buy Tomcoins is to ask his older brother, who doubtless knows all the passwords used in the household.
Apple, of course, is very po-faced about all of this, pointing out that all its apps are rigorously vetted by the company and that nothing gets on to an iDevice without its approval. Which is true, as many app developers ruefully acknowledge.
What then are we to make of last week’s announcement that Apple has reached a settlement with the U.S. federal trade commission that will involve refunding at least $32.5 million to consumers to settle a complaint that it billed parents for in-app purchases made by their children without their consent? Under the terms of the settlement, Apple also agreed to change its billing practices to make sure that it has obtained “express, informed consent” from consumers before charging them for items sold in mobile apps.
Of course, $32.5 million is small beer compared with the $10 billion customers spent in the App Store last year, and company executives may write it off as the cost of doing business in a grubby area. But this isn’t, in the end, just about money. It’s also about corporate social responsibility. Apple is very, very fierce about pornography in the App Store. Shouldn’t it also be as fierce about manipulative games?