Free online video game costs Alberta father thousands of dollars

Click to play video: 'Alberta man out thousands after daughter racks up hundreds of video game purchases'
Alberta man out thousands after daughter racks up hundreds of video game purchases
WATCH ABOVE: An Alberta father is calling for more accountability from parents and corporations after getting hit with a huge bill for what was supposed to be a free online video game. Tomasia DaSilva reports. – Mar 1, 2022

An Alberta father is warning others after being on the hook for thousands of dollars when his daughter got addicted to an online video game.

Jerry Marion of Okotoks told Global News his 18-year-old daughter became hooked on the game Township over the Christmas break, racking up about 800 charges over a few months.

“She was spending $200 to $250 a day on some days. In total, it was just under $5,000 — $4,986.”

Marion said his daughter was confused about what she was buying and the fact that she was using real money. He added he believed the game also played into the vulnerability and isolation she was experiencing at the time.

“She was going through some social anxiety,” he said. “Some medication that she was taking to deal with that was also being adjusted.

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“She thought it was simply just credits that were being accumulated and as the dollars were racking up, it wasn’t hitting her credit card.”

Township, which is described as a blend of city living and farming, is free to download but some virtual in-game items can also be purchased for real money.

Popular online video game Township. Global Calgary

University of Calgary professor and tech expert Tom Keenan told Global News while these games are advertised as free, they are actually big moneymakers.

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“These games are a business, and if they give them away for free, they have to make their money somehow,” he said. “So they make it extremely enticing for you to buy things.”

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He also pointed to the sense of community they can provide, which is appealing during isolation.

“You’re encouraged every time you log on to buy something and share it with your friends,” Keenan said. “They’re trying to put you into an online community of people that you give and receive gifts to, and that can be very, very addictive.

“The algorithms are very powerful, so just about everyone falls for them at one point.”

Keenan encouraged parents to install parental controls, know what their kids are playing and know where they’re getting the money to play.

As for adults, he advised gamers to set a limit and stick with it. However, he also added that game manufacturers should be more transparent about their games, the added costs and their addictive ability.

Marion agreed.

“I think the game does put prompts in there to say that as you’re reaching a certain pinnacle, then they start to prompt you to purchase more,” he said. “Then, as you purchase more, you become very much a lucrative customer.”

Marion reached out to Township developer Playrix for help resolving the charges but said he did not hear back. Global News did the same, but also did not get a response.

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Marion also reached out to Apple for a refund but said his appeals were denied — twice.

How to control/limit spending

On Apple’s support page, the company has several ways to limit purchases made on any of its apps and devices.

  • Passwords: Customers can choose whether they want to enter passwords when buying items as well as how often they want those passwords to be entered.
  • Built-in tools and resources: Family SharingAsk To Buy and Parental Controls can help customers protect themselves and their families from unauthorized use and spending.
  • Email invoices: All App Store customers are sent an email invoice/receipt for every completed in-app purchase.

The company also points out it has an easy charge dispute process, though it was one that Marion said did not work for him.

He reached out to Global News and got a response within a few days.

But Marion said what’s more important than the refunded money was that the tech giant acknowledged there are certain situations that may merit another look and a different approach. He added it’s important to consider vulnerable people in an addiction cycle and how to protect them.

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It’s a role he said corporations and parents must jointly play when it comes to online video games.

“We (parents) have to be more conscious of where we’re setting up the ability to spend money, and I think from my daughter’s perspective, it was a bit confusing for her,” Marion said. “But I think she really understands now that as you go through these addictive cycles, you have to find ways to get out of them.”

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