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4 Ways Mobile Game Apps Scam Your Kids

You probably hear stories of kids who have spent lots of money using mobile app games and think that couldn’t happen to your kids who would be too sensible to get into that revolving door. Think again! The game companies are using very clever psychology tricks to maximise the chances of their user's spending money.

In this blog, I’m going to share 4 tricks mobile games use to scam your kids as I don’t want your kids to fall for them.

One: The First Purchase

As you’ll know, most apps are free to download. Games allow you to play without spending a penny. It sounds great, but as soon as it’s been downloaded, the tricks come in to play.

The first major task for the game developer is to get the player to make that first purchase. To do that they offer something that sounds amazing and costs almost nothing. It could be extra levels, extra weapons or bonus points.

The amount could be lower than US$1.

Clearly, there is no harm in spending just $1, surely! However, that is probably the biggest hurdle and it’s all to do with the mindset.

Even spending just $1 changes the user from a ‘free player’ to a ‘paying player’. That simple switch is much bigger than moving from a ‘player who pays $1’ to a ‘player who pays $2’.

Soon the other offers come in. The player has appreciated the massive advantages they gained with that $1. They want that boost again. Especially, if it’s a multiplayer game and they are easily beating the ‘free players’.

To put this in a different context, imagine if you had always flown economy class and had always been reasonably content. Then you get the opportunity to fly first class for $100. You’d probably take it. You would likely find the experience amazing. The free drinks, no queues, flat-bed and delicious food. Afterwards, you start to dread ever flying economy class again. The next time you fly, the airline offers an upgrade for $500, and you are much more likely to take it.

Two: Anchoring

Before the games provide the offer that they really want you to purchase, they offer something expensive. Something that no one would really buy (although I’m guessing there are some people that do). They do this so that when they put the next offer up, it seems like an absolute bargain and materially increases the chance of a purchase.

This is known as ‘Price Anchoring’.

If you’ve been following the news about Elon Musk buying Twitter, you’ll know that they are now saying you become a paying subscriber of Twitter and get lots of benefits. This includes getting the ‘blue tick’ (which is actually a white tick) for $7.99 per month. Before the price was made official, Elon Musk was on social media saying the price could be around $20 per month. This is anchoring, he was never planning on charging $20 per month. He just wanted $7.99 to seem more reasonable when it was made official so that more people would sign up.

Three: Addiction

The game developers know that the more you play, the more you are likely to spend as they have opportunities to sell.

The developers know what drives addiction. The same as online gambling games. Start with a big win so players know what winning feels like. Then take it away and then give another win to keep players interested whilst ensuring it is not as good as the initial win (e.g. give them less points or prizes). This keeps them chasing that first brain boost they received. If they want that again, they can simply pay a bit more for extra advantages.

The games have levels. As you go up through the levels you still play against people who haven't reached your level yet as they probably haven’t paid enough to get the required. In addition, however, you also start playing against other players who have paid even more than you. You see the advantages compared to where you were but you’re still not the best. There is someone who is quicker or has more weapons or whatever advantage it may be depending on the game. The player will always be chasing more. Each level requires you spend more and more money to get to the next level.

Whilst you can get to the next levels on the free mode, the number of points you need means you’d be playing the game non-stop for years.

Another trick game creators use is to increase addiction is by offering bonuses if you play for a certain number of consecutive days. The more consecutive days you play, the more bonuses you receive.

Four: Multilayered currency

In my blog, ‘How Starbucks really makes money’, I mentioned that they don’t have any currency symbols next to the prices on the menu. They do this as people think of real money when they see a $ or £ sign and therefore they are less likely to spend as much. Mobile games take this theory to the next level.

In online games, for example, they never say that the price of an upgrade is $5. Instead they create their own currency. To illustrate, they may say that to get to the next level you need to use 27 gems (they won’t use the word ‘cost’ to avoid it sounding like you need to spend). You can win gems by playing the game but you can also buy gems in batches. As it’s never $1 equals 1 gem, it makes it hard for the user to really appreciate how much something costs. Especially as a player can win some gems and they have to buy in batches rather than purchase single gems.

The reason games sell their 'gems' (or whatever currency name they use) in batches is so that when a player uses some of their gems, they will still have some outstanding. They know that people don’t want to leave gems unused (as there is no way of selling them to get their money back), and in most cases, they won’t have enough for another upgrade, so they buy more gems.

As the games go on, they increase the layering. For example, an upgrade might be 6 'treasure chests'. To get a treasure chest, you need to convert over 35 gems. Working out how much 6 treasure chests costs in real money isn’t easy! This confusion makes people spend a lot more than they otherwise would.

Side note: It would be interesting to see a game developer create a game which does all of the above but parents pay a fixed amount upfront. Then kids can use their pocket money for in-app bonuses but the money doesn’t go to the developer, it goes into a savings pot. This could be a fun way for kids to save more, i.e. “save to play”.


If your kids ever say “Please can I buy this, it’s only $1”, it’s probably best to say ‘No’. By saying ‘yes’, you will be opening them up to a world of psychological tricks which could see their money (or your money) disappear.

My girls are still young and don’t have phones yet, but I want them to be aware of how people spend so much when using mobile game apps. I’m happy for them to play the free versions on my phone but they now know why I don’t let them spend on upgrades.

ACTION: Take the time to teach your kids about these different tricks that the games use to get people to spend money. Increasing their awareness is one of the best ways to avoid them falling for the tricks.

Thanks for reading!


P.S. Do your kids have a copy of Grandpa's Fortune Fables yet?


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