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Will apps get regulated?

By on December 19, 2012

I was interviewed by PC Pro for a discussion on whether apps should be regulated, particularly those with IAPs aimed at children. The story was initiated by an FTC report that had little to do with In App Purchases and more to do with apps that broke data protection laws.

My view is that there are four groups involved in protecting children from unscrupulous game design: parents, developers, platform holders and governments.


Parents have the primary responsibility. They should ensure IAPs require the password. They should make sure that the password is required every time. They should keep the password secret. (A parent who gives a young child their AppStore password is as feckless as one who gives their child the PIN for the cashpoint card). They should also teach children the value of money. On the other hand, they should be able to trust that games will always make it clear when real money is being spent.

Developers have a responsibility to behave ethically when designing products aimed at children, as all marketers in this segment do. It should be clear that real money is being spent. No one should be able to “accidentally” spend money. The use of psychological tricks to drive purchase desire is more tricky: since all game design and all marketing is about psychological tricks, they can’t be involved. The developers who will be successful in the long term will build trusted brands through keeping the right side of the difficult-to-navigate ethical line. In the short term, some developers will be exploitative and unethical, chasing quick bucks. They will tarnish the industry for the rest of us, which means the platform holders will have to take action.

Platform holders have a responsibility to make it easy for parents to control the spending of their children. I recently bought a new iPad and was dismayed to see that In App Purchases did not require a password by default, and that I automatically had a 15 minute window during which I could keep buying IAPs having only entered my password once. I think this should be locked down by default. I expected to see a press furore about children spending lots of money on apps in 2012. It didn’t seem to materialise. Perhaps it will in 2013.

Governments are the last resort. If platform holders fail to rein in the worst excesses of a handful of developers, government might be forced to act, or might choose to for political expediency. I think this would be a heavy-handed response that would stifle innovation, but it might happen.

In essence, platform holders and parents have the strongest motivations to act. But some parents are feckless, as are some developers, and that is what will lead to calls for regulation. Let us all work together to educate parents and all out those developers behaving unethically to discourage them. If we don’t, government will do the job for us.

You can read the full interview over at PC Pro.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: