COMMENTARY

When kids have a whale of a time with video games

Addictive free-to-play games could lure young ones into spending big bucks to keep playing

If you can control time, you can be the queen of video games, or so my eldest daughter thought.

That is what she figured out on her own when she was playing a mobile game called Monster Crafter, in which gamers rear virtual monsters and send them to battle other monsters to gain experience and become stronger.

Every battle, however, saps a portion of the player's energy and when this energy pool is depleted, the player has to wait for it to be recharged.

There is a short-cut - spend real moolah to restore one's energy pool instantly.


-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

But my daughter discovered a way to cheat. She simply exited the game, advanced the time on her smartphone by an hour, restarted the game and found her virtual monsters ready for the next fight with their energy completely replenished.

As parents, it is important to understand that there is no free lunch. That is why these games are called free-to-play games and not free games. If you see your child playing the same game over and over again for many hours every day, that can be a concern because he or she could be a whale. It is less worrying if the child is playing many different games or keeps flipping from one game to another. That is a likely sign that the child is not addicted to any one particular game...

Unfortunately, this simple hack works on only a handful of games because most game developers have figured out and closed this loophole.

The point I am making, however, is not about the simple hack, but that my daughter was so motivated to continue playing her game that she hunted for the work-around.

These free-to-play games are free to install, but make money from getting players hooked so that they will fork out money to get in-app purchases such as costumes, weapons and extra lives, and even something as simple as taking the wait out of the game.

Candy Crush is the perfect example. It reportedly clocks US$931,000 (S$1.3 million) a day in revenue from players spending money to buy stuff such as extra lives which lets them keep playing the game instead of having to wait.

The king of freemium games is Clash Of Clans, which reportedly rings in US$1.56 million every day from players buying virtual resources and goods to strengthen their defences and make their attacks more powerful.

The amazing thing is that both of these games are technically free. The vast majority of players will never fork out a cent to buy these in-game optional wares, but some of those who do end up spending a prince's ransom to stay ahead in the game that they are completely immersed in. There is even a name for these big spenders - whales.

Since the developers need to hook the whales to actually make money off their "free" games, these games are often designed to be highly addictive.

As parents, it is important to understand that there is no free lunch. That is why these games are called free-to-play games, and not free games.

If you see your child playing the same game over and over again for many hours every day, that can be a concern because he or she could be a whale.

It is less worrying if the child is playing many different games or keeps flipping from one game to another. That is a likely sign that the child is not addicted to any one particular game, but is enjoying video games by trying out many different ones.

The Internet today poses many dangers for kids - social media addiction, overspending on free-to-play games, cyber bullying, inappropriate content and grooming by bad hats online.

But going by a focus group of parents that I joined earlier this month, who were trying out a new cyber wellness app developed by a local corporation here, the biggest concerns are inappropriate content and video game addiction.

That finding was eye-opening for me.

In recent months, I have heard several complaints from my friends on how their teenage sons can spend as much as $100 a day to buy Google Play pre-paid cards from nearby convenience stores.

These mums typically have no idea what their kids are doing with these cards and can only suspect that they are used to pay for in-game items in these free-to-play mobile games.

In May, a report from global research firm Newzoo showed that Singapore gamers are the biggest spenders in South-east Asia, even though it has one of the smallest populations. The average spending of Singaporeans on video games across all platforms is $250 per person per year, which is over five times as much as the $44 paid out by those in the next highest- spending country, Malaysia.

In this day and age, it is impossible to stop your kids from playing video games.

In fact, I would advise against it as it may result in the kids, especially the boys, becoming out of place among their peers.

What you can do is to manage the video gaming.

Some parents let their children play only during weekends. Others place computers in the living room so that they can see what their children are doing, while a handful even set up parental control software to monitor what their kids are doing online.

I have confiscated some smartphones on school days, but it means I am unable to reach my child when she is in school - not a good solution.

But I think these methods won't work out in the end.

With the mobile phone becoming essentially a mobile computer and with free-to-play games now dominating the smartphone platform, it is next to impossible to monitor the kids' gaming habits.

This is the case in my own home, because there are too many laptops, tablets, smartphones and game consoles lying around. My three girls - aged 13, 10 and four - have figured out my usual passwords and are quite smart in searching for work-arounds to beat the system.

I still believe in education and trust to regulate my children's gaming. My eldest daughter knows she should not spend money on in-game items, and that is why she searched for the loophole.

The one big upcoming mobile game every parent needs to know about is Pokemon Go. Slated to launch next year, this free-to-play title is Nintendo's first foray into the smartphone platform for its Pokemon franchise.

Gamers have to move around in the real world to search for Pokemons "hidden" in real places through the use of augmented reality in their phones. When they reach a location which has a hidden Pokemon, they can probably do something with their phones to "capture" the creature, which they can then train to fight another.

Do not doubt the power of Pokemon. My two older girls discovered the Pokemon animated television show on online streaming service Netflix recently, and they have been slowly trawling through every single episode of the 20-year series. My second daughter even picked up her markers to start drawing Pokemon pets.

There are no details yet on how Nintendo is going to charge for the in-game items in Pokemon Go, but I am sure it will be tough to resist spending some money.

After the game launches, don't be surprised when your kids start asking you to ferry them around for long car rides - they may well be searching for hidden Pokemons.


• The writer, previously technology editor of The Straits Times, is now a public relations consultant.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2015, with the headline 'When kids have a whale of a time with video games'. Print Edition | Subscribe