Thursday, January 28, 2016

How to Make Online Spending More (In)Accessible

Extra Credits recently released this video:

In it, they discuss how the EU has recently passed some laws trying to protect children from predatory free-to-play games, and how children really aren't the big target of these games. For those of you not well versed in the game industry, free-to-play games are games which cost absolutely nothing to acquire - but you can spend money to unlock various upgrades, such as cosmetic changes, increases in power or greater options.

While responsible free-to-play games expect most of their players to spend a small amount of money on those items of most interest to them, predatory free-to-play games attempt to get players to spend thousands of dollars on their game. As you might expect, most children aren't able to spend thousands on one game. Most parents don't allow kids free access to their credit cards. Children playing free-to-play games - or doing any other activity involving online purchases - usually have to clear their purchases with a parent, who is usually not invested in the game and therefore not likely to spend more than they can afford on it. Sure, there are exceptions, but this is not the real danger from free-to-play games.

The real danger is what free-to-play does to adults with weak executive functions. Maybe people using a game to cope with a mental health issue, and therefore not putting the game in its' proper perspective, or people who have trouble understanding the value of money, or maybe just people who are impulsive and/or compulsive with most things they do. In other words, people like me - or like I would be, if I didn't know myself so well.

And it's not just free-to-play. All electronic purchases carry this risk. Electronic money isn't tangible. It's hard to get a visceral sense of how much - or how little - you have. If it's getting harder and harder to find the bills in my pocket, I know I'm running out of cash. But how can I get the same feedback from a card? With my bank card, I only know I'm out when I try to buy something and fail, which is why I prefer to pay cash instead.

With a credit card, you don't even get that much feedback - instead of declining a purchase when you run out, it'll just send you into debt. And by the time a credit card refuses to buy what you're trying to buy, you'll be hundreds of dollars in debt.

So, how can we protect people who have trouble monitoring how much they spend? By making it more tangible and inconvenient to spend money. On my iPhone, I don't have a payment method programmed in for the app store. I do this deliberately, so that if I accidentally or mistakenly choose an option that costs money, it'll throw up an error. The one time I decided to spend money on the app store, I got a pre-paid card - it can be used in place of a credit card, but has only a very limited amount of money and can't have money added to it.

I programmed it in, and bought the apps I wanted, running myself broke. Then, I decided to surf the app store for some more free apps, and was horrified. The app store had stopped telling me the prices of the apps, or even whether they cost money or not. I'd try to download an app and the first sign I got that it cost money was when it popped up an error because it had tried to buy itself and my card was out. It was also unexpectedly difficult to make my iPhone forget about the card and revert to thinking I had no payment method.

To make online spending more accessible for people with poor executive functions, we need to (ironically) make it less accessible. Every purchase should be a deliberate decision, and one requiring several steps. It should require you to transition from your current activity to do something else in order to purchase. It should be an annoying process. Not difficult, but annoying. And most of all, you should always, always, know exactly what purchases you're making and how much they cost.

Most companies are never going to do this of their own free will, of course. They want us to lose control of our spending. They want us to spend more than we can afford, to spend money on their product that we'd have otherwise spent on necessities or on building a brighter future. The fundamental truth about capitalism is that they don't really care about us. All that matters to them is lining their own pockets.

And so the only way that companies will do what I propose is if they're forced to.


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