Do you ever play in-app games on a phone or tablet? Some kids do it every day. These games often ask us to spend money to earn certain things like extra lives or special features, or to watch ads to get these things for “free.” But even when we don’t spend any real money, there’s always a cost for playing.
Gaming companies know how to get us hooked, explains Ryan D. Matzner, co-founder of Fueled, an app-building company. “Just like your favorite musician is really good at singing songs, your favorite app developer is really good at figuring out how to get you to pay money in their app,” he says. Before an app is released, the developers test different versions, and the one that convinces people to spend the most money is the one they use, Matzner explains.
When you win a game, it feels good, and when you lose, it can feel frustrating. Gaming companies know that we want to prevent those bad feelings, so the game will strategically strategically DANITA DELIMONT/GETTY IMAGES with careful planning and thought (adverb) The robbery was strategically timed to occur right before the bank closed for the day. ask us to purchase or earn a “second chance” just as we are about to fail. That may seem unfair, but these companies have to earn money. A good gaming app costs about $250,000 to develop, and companies have to guarantee a return on investment return on investment TETRA IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES how much is gained or lost on a project (noun) Jemima switched to less-expensive cups, so the return on investment will be higher for each cup of lemonade she sells. , says Danny Saad, vice president at Dom & Tom, an agency that has built more than 140 apps.
They’re Selling Ads
For every ad you watch, the company that makes the game gets a few cents from the advertiser, Saad says. In-app ads work like TV commercials. But not all ads are safe. Some ask you to install another app. That’s dangerous, because you might be downloading malicious software called malware that could steal private information off your phone.
And even though watching an ad doesn’t cost you money, understand that you’re still paying for it with time you could have spent hanging with friends or doing homework. This is called opportunity cost. “All those little minutes add up,” says Victoria Dunckley, child psychiatrist and author of Reset Your Child’s Brain. It’s a waste of time “because your brain isn’t being stimulated,” she says.
They Get You to Buy Stuff
Finally, keep in mind that whenever you buy something from the app store—even when it’s coins or tokens that let you keep playing, and not something you can hold in your hand—you’re using real money. “Part of why apps use fake money is to make it harder for you to remember that it’s real money you’re spending,” Matzner explains.
Get Smarter in Three Moves
We know you don’t want to stop playing your favorite games. But you can be smarter about how you play them. Here are three tips.
Avoid games that ask you to approve “extended permissions” when you use your Google account or Apple ID. Approving these allows developers to see personal details that should be private, such as your date of birth, address, and current location.
Buy the app up front instead of buying tokens along the way. You’re better off paying a low, one-time download fee than frequently buying tokens to play a game that was supposed to be free.
Only play games that respect your time. “Some games will make you watch a minute of ads for every three minutes of game play,” Matzner says. “That’s a horrible ratio.” If an app is too full of ads, look for other options. Most popular apps have competitors that are less ad-heavy.
—By Kathryn Tuggle
Click here for the Grade 4 Teacher's Guide.
Extra! Click here to read a related article from TIME for Kids.