Norwegian version

Buying popularity: how children are influenced by in-game spending

boy playing Fortnite

"We find that skins, which refer to how you appear in the game, have a crucial social function," says Clara Julia Reich.

"Children may experience being called poor if they haven't spent money on their character. Children who have spent money on their in-game character can gain increased attention and other advantages, thus buying popularity," says Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes.

Almost all children and teenagers play video games, making it a crucial social meeting place. The two researchers at SIFO, OsloMet, have played along with children aged 10 to 15 to learn more about how they are influenced to spend money in games. The research has resulted in two reports on manipulative game design commissioned by the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs. The government is currently working on a video game strategy.

The researchers explain that the gaming market integrates with everything else children do in life.

"There's no sharp distinction between their online and offline world. These are just different parts of the social world they navigate, and appearance, or skins, are important identity markers," says Steinnes.

As Frank (13 years old) puts it: "If you don't play with anyone, you kind of have nothing to talk about at school."

Young people express their interests through the games they play, the groups they join and the effects from well-known brands they buy. Social influence from friends is a significant motivation for spending money in games, as are trends from social media.

"Kids info football play FIFA and spend money on in-game items that confer status, while others spend money on effects from Nike, Balenciaga, or Star Wars. They are influenced by memes and trends on platforms like TikTok," says Reich.

Body-image pressure and scams

With joy and camaraderie also come downsides, such as exclusion and bullying.

"Some of the teens talk about racism and gender discrimination, and we see examples of digital body-image pressure," says Steinnes.

Especially girls are vulnerable, as experienced by Sidra (14 years old):

"I heard things like 'go back to the kitchen,' and it was like 'you're a girl, die, die, die.' It was, like, very graphic."

Many also experience being scammed and having their skins stolen. The researchers believe many have room for improvement in consumer competence to avoid being deceived.

"This is problematic because children and young people are a vulnerable consumer group navigating almost unregulated markets on their own," she says.

"Young people have fantastic technical gaming competence, but consumer competence is lacking. There's also a significant difference in how much parents get involved," adds Reich. She notes that not all adults have sufficient digital competence either.

Influenced by “dark patterns”

Additionally, the gaming world has changed enormously in recent years.

"Most games today are free to play, but with many different ways to spend money within the game. Game developers make money by keeping people spending a lot of time there," says Reich.

In one of the two reports, researchers have identified thirteen different forms of manipulative or unethical design, called "dark patterns," encouraging players to invest more time, money, or personal data than intended. The report categorizes manipulative design into four categories: visual design, unclear labeling, time-based elements, and gambling mechanisms.

"Manipulative design is interfaces that force, press, or trick consumers into making choices that are in the company's best interest by exploiting the users' weaknesses," says Steinnes.

Gambling, surprises, and rewards

Children in the study spent from a hundred to over a thousand Norwegian kroner on in-game items per year.

Many of the games they played included gambling mechanisms, such as loot boxes or wheel of fortune. There were examples of free trials of features that later cost money once users became accustomed to them. These could be products available for only a certain period, often with a countdown clock, and increasingly, seasonal items like Halloween specials or Christmas specials.

Game passes, giving buyers the opportunity to play as much as they can for a certain period, for example, a month, are also common.

"We also found a few examples of consumer-protective design, or 'anti-dark patterns.' It could be, for example, having to press twice to actually buy something," says Steinnes.

Is regulation possible?

Gaming is a global billion-dollar industry and a massive marketplace. Currently, little is known about how young people experience and are influenced by advertisements in games. Reich and Steinnes are working to fill these knowledge gaps.

"Regulating a global market from one country is difficult, and there should be consistent rules across the EU," say the researchers, who closely monitor government efforts.

About this research

On behalf of the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs, SIFO has conducted the project "Pay to play," examining the social, technical, and economic aspects of video games. They have conducted play-along interviews with children who play. The project has resulted in two reports.

Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes, Clara Julia Reich og Helene Fiane Teigen: Kartlegging av manipulerende spilldesign. Delrapport 1 fra prosjektet «Pay to play» (oslomet.no). SIFO-rapport nr. 12-2023

Clara Julia Reich og Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes: Barns forbruk i videospill og hvordan det påvirker sosiale relasjoner. Delrapport 2 fra prosjektet «Pay to play» (oslomet.no). SIFO-rapport nr. 13-2023

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A research article from:
Forbruksforskningsinstituttet SIFO
Published: 05/01/2024
Last updated: 05/01/2024
Text: Kjersti Lassen
Photo: Shutterstock