Children Fear Being Bullied If They Do Not Buy Items In Free-to-Play Video Games

©Epic Games

study has found that children and teenagers can face bullying if they do not pay for items in free-to-play games such as Fortnite and Roblox.

The Norwegian-based study was conducted by OsloMet PhD student Clara Julia Reich, specialising in consumption research, alongside OsloMet behaviour analyst Kamilla Knutsen Steinns.

They found that in-app purchases such as weapons, skins, and gear are being treated as essentials for children as young as ten, to avoid being mocked by classmates or to gain popularity. 

Oslo Metropolitan University and communications advisor, Kjersti Lassen commissioned the study to highlight and explain the reasons behind the issue.

Knutsen Steinnes said: “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.”

Like how fashion brands are treated with esteem and prestige, in-app purchases are increasingly being valued as a talking point for children.

The study interviewed 19 Norwegian children aged 10 to 15. One child in the study, aged 13, said: “If you don’t play with anyone, you kind of have nothing to talk about at school.”

Another study from the same researchers and OsloMet PhD student, Helene Fiane Teigen found that games use “manipulative or unethical” tactics, labelled as “darker patterns” to encourage players to buy more in-app purchases.

Some of these tactics include unclear labelling, gambling mechanisms, visual design and placing a time element onto these in-app purchases. Some gambling mechanisms used include loot boxes, free trials and special-edition items. Similar to the appeal of lottery tickets, the uncertainty of opening a loot box boosts players’ engagement rate as they perceive their items as collectables. They return repeatedly to compete with friends for the best items. 

Knutsen Steinnes said: “Manipulative design is interfaces that force, pressure, or trick consumers into making choices that are in the company’s best interest, by exploiting the users’ weaknesses.”

An example of an “anti-dark pattern” that some games employ is by being asked twice to confirm that they actually want to buy an in-app purchase. 

The study also highlights how children are also subject to sexism and racism while playing online. Knutsen Steinnes described this as a “digital body-image pressure” which children feel the need to conform to fit in. A 14-year-old girl in the study explained how having female skin in games led to sexist remarks from her peers. She said: “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.”

Last year, Australia introduced a bill that put restrictions on games with in-game purchases and “gambling-like” elements which aimed to protect players.

From September 2024, these games are now to be rated M, meaning that they only recommend those over the age of 15 to play them. 

Nevertheless, the ultimate decision regarding whether children play these games rests upon parental discretion. 

Words by Libby Jennings

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