How online games are hooking kids and fooling parents.

When parents say “kids are spending too much time playing games” it encompasses a very broad cultural understanding of what they mean. Broadly speaking, parents are concerned, all be it covertly, about their part in providing children with unprecedented access to digital entertainment. While the 1990s saw parents criticized for allowing children to watch too much TV and using DVDs as improvised babysitting, many of those kids are now beginning to raise their own families. The cross over parents — those who had kids between 2000 and 2010 tend to see  using the Internet and watching TV and Movies less holistically than newer parents who appear to be keen to give toddlers and young children mobile devices as soon as they develop gross motor reflexes. For many pre-schoolers, their lives have been back grounded by games.

What parents don’t often know is that the vast majority of games young children play are intentionally designed as persuasive games. They are designed to attract players in order to commodify (make money from) children and parental willingness to give children games over doing something else with them. There is a cultural lie circulating parental debates which attempts to associate excessive game-play with consoles and PC/OSX games. This has a long research and sociology-political association with negativity and consumerism. In short, it’s easy to blame games for thing children (appear) to be doing, despite fraught parental objections and cafe-conversations about how terrible this is for our society. In the mean time parents tend to believe online games are less ‘dangerous’ than consoles and PC games. This is of course ridiculous.

By far, the type of games young children play are designed for the web and mobile. As much as 92% of persuasive games are designed for this audience, and over half of these are what are called adver-games. Very few of these games are designed to be downloaded and run on a PC or Mac (although educational efforts often do so, yet are a small proportion of the market).

Many kids head to online game sites to play games. These sites contain a mix of games, some persuasive and some not. What most share in common is popularity and advertising messages. This is what fuels their hosting and generate their vast profits. Research has shown that this type of peripheral advertising does influence what children say and do. Persuasion in key to sales and it comes as no shock that over 90% of games kids play (often snack games) combine heuristics of psychology (responses and actions that are almost automatic), marketing and designs which affect player perspectives and understandings. Whether the advertising material is embedded in the game, or the surrounding advertising material, I argue that most kids are surrounded my marketing messages constantly. They are being sold real and virtual items, and most importantly ideas. One of the most dangerous being the idea that tapping for hours and doing busy work is fun (wave to Candy Crush everyone). The purpose of much of the online and mobile games parents are pushing children towards (or allowing them to play) is persuasion in the form of consumer action.

By far, the player is represented in these games as a natural form (humanoid) compared to abstracted (pac-man) or geometric (a box). This is not unintentional. The aim of these games is not to immerse players in the most wonderful, imaginative or socially responsible games ever created. They are made to promote products and ideas, to create competition and to build brand capital. It’s all the rage in advertising and marketing — party because parents are totally asleep at the wheel, conditioned (often by psychologists) to focus on console game content and myths about making kids violent or fat.

So when parents say “too much gaming” its useful to consider what, where and why they are playing. Chances are kids will be playing persuasive games in parental ‘downtime’ unsupervised — as the game is used as a pseudo babysitter. Over time, as kids are allowed to play these games almost constantly, they believe that play and consumer goods are a normal association. It’s only when they want to play console games like Battlefield or GTA that parents tune into the cultural negative dialogue, often completely annexing their own role and history in providing access to the most predatory forms of gaming — persuasive games designed to sell products and ideas.

Personally, I buy a lot of games for my kids. I test drive them all and make sure that they cycle though games of different types with different characteristics. I point out the adver-traps of mobile and online games and encourage them to select games which are designed to be games. That isn’t as easy as it looks.

Here’s an example of a game which a parent has made. It’s super simple, and illustrates that when a child likes a brand or product, that it isn’t necessary to wait for the brand-persuasion and instead make your own game!

Compare the the subtle design of the companies kid-focused website –  notice how kids can look at all the engines (which they can buy). Also look at the way games are used to promote paid-TV. Even if your are not interested in games, there is a form of cultural amnesia happening in education about brands, products and ideas. While teachers often celebrate the brilliance of Apple and Google, much less is talked about when it comes to how they use these products for persuasion. The comfortably numb position is to believe that they are making efforts towards ‘social good’, however I argue this is a most naive stance educators can take as it endorses brands rather than demand they respond to educational needs and research.