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Free for All: Accept envelopes full of cash


Well, at least that was the advice that Min Kim, vice president of Nexon America gave would-be game developers and other audience members at GDC Austin last year. To be clear, he was not telling them, while rolling his evil mustache and laughing, to get their hands on kids money no matter what. He was simply suggesting to game makers that they accept as many forms of payment as possible, including envelopes full of cash.

And if you look at the Nexon website, Pay-By-Cash does allow you to send money through the mail. There are, quite literally, scores of ways to get your money into the hands of free-to-play developers. It's a little ironic, if you think about it, that the "free" market so easily fuels the addiction to pink dresses or limited-time mounts. So, are they enablers or just very smart?

I looked into one of these alternate payment methods, just to see exactly how some of them work. The one that caught my eye was the method that uses your cell phone bill as the bank, filling up your game account with however much game cash you needed, and then tacking the charge (along with a decent sized surcharge) onto your cell phone bill. For my ten US dollars worth of Nexon cash, they would tack on a fee of $8.99, for a total of $18.99. It looks like the charge stays the same no matter the amount.

I imagine there might be those reading this who are looking at the screen with an open mouth right now. Pick up your jaw. These type of payment methods seem to have been going on for a long, long time, and sit alongside other methods that we North Americans have never imagined. Remember, most World of Warcraft players reside in countries outside of the United States, and most do not pay a subscription but instead pay by-the-hour or use other ways. Remember, as well, that not all forms of payment have a charge on top of the amount you pay. There are always good ole' credit cards.

For me, this is interesting because it looks at the many opportunities for children to get their little gamer hands on enough in-game currency to give Mom and Dad a heart attack. Within seconds, is it possible that junior could tack on a few hundred dollars in fees onto the already hefty cell bill of his parents?

I am not concerned with adults and their purchases, for the sake of this article. An adult should know enough to keep his or her finances in check. If it is a matter of pure addiction, then that subject can rest until another article.

I am more interested in the horror stories like the boy that charged hundreds of dollars to his parents for virtual cash in Farmville. Granted, that boy was not playing what we would call an "MMORPG." Still, the example remains relevant. Are companies that provide so many different ways of paying aware that they are leaving open more opportunities for this kind of behavior? I would say that they are very aware of it, and are very happy to take the child's money, as long as the transaction was legal.

"If you were the gaming company and received a call for a refund, despite the fact that it came from her household, what would you do?"

What about cases, like the Farmville cash boy, that were not technically intended to be OK'd? Well, that responsibility still rests upon the shoulders of the child's parents. Using credit cards in North America can have its scary element, but many credit card companies provide insurance for fraud or allow holders to dispute charges. If you look at the case above, Zynga (the company that makes the famous Facebook game) decided against giving the money back. The mother could go to her credit card company to dispute it, but I would wager that the credit card company would ask for the evidence that the card was stolen and used by a masked villain instead of by her own son.

Aren't examples like this no different than a child that takes cash out of his mother's wallet, just to go to the local Gamestop to purchase a time card for World of Warcraft or for EQ2? The mother or father would still bear the responsibility of the child.

Are game companies only adding to the problems of today's plugged-in youth by giving them an easier way into to virtual millionaire-hood by giving so many convenient and, yes, sneaky ways to pay for their habit? I think so, yes. But only after the child and the parents do their part.

Remember, the entire process starts inside the child's house. He has to have free access to a computer, or would at some point. Also, he would need free access to the cell phone, or to the wallet that held the credit card. I could be going way out on a limb here, but I imagine that he is allowed to sit at his PC, unchecked, for many hours of the day. If you were the gaming company and received a parents call for a refund, despite the fact that it came from her household, what would you do?

So, are companies that use these options acting underhandedly? In my opinion, they are acting as a business, no more, no less. This is a new age, with children growing up on computers and cell phones. I grew up on comic books and plywood forts. The only thing that hasn't changed from then until now is that parents need to be aware of what their children are doing, and aware of the tools they have to get into trouble.

The tools have just become more sophisticated, that's all.

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