How to manipulate children for fun and profit

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on August 28, 2013

From The News Desk

One recent morning my daughters, age 7 and 9, came to me with an all too common first-world problem. They were playing a game on our communal iPad and to level up would require us to pay real money.

The game, which we downloaded free, is called Monster Pet Shop, by Beeline, a game designer. Players manage a pet store that features cute animated monsters (done up Tamagotchi-style) that are for sale. To care for the monsters requires four actions: cleaning, feeding, petting, and playing. A player is given a budget – just like in a real small business – and has to "pay" for food. If a monster's environment becomes dirty, the player has to clean it, and that requires purchasing tools of the trade such as brushes, priced accordingly because cheaper ones break. The monsters are like puppies or kittens and enjoy playing, so a player can purchase toys.

Anyway, you get the idea. Once a user blasts through the initial budget, as with most games based on a freemium model, she has to pay to venture further.

I'm sure every parent has his or her own set of rules governing games and iPads, iPhones, TVs, and computer screen time. In our house we limit the amount of time our kids can interact with screens. My wife and I believe it's just too easy for kids to get sucked into playing, say, iPad games for hours. At the same time, we don't want to ban games in our house, because I do believe there's something worthwhile to be gained. And, of course, the games are fun. In addition our feeling – and feel free to disagree – is that by prohibiting games that many of their friends play, we would be making them forbidden fruit, and that would make our kids want them even more. (We don't ban sugar either. My wife fears that would just make them crave it even more when they become adolescents.)

One exception to our limitation on screen time governs Kindle Paperwhites, which I bought each for her birthday. They can only read books on them – reading is something I gladly promote – and they know they can buy ebooks any time without asking, as long as they cost under $12.99. (Most children's titles cost less.) I prefer ebooks to hardcovers and paperbacks because we live in Brooklyn and don't have space for all the books they read. Our basement is packed with them. Feel free to come by and cart them away to your favorite library or charity.

We've also instituted specific policies for the iPad. That is, I've told my children that I'm fine with downloading free games, but I won't pay for virtual goods. For the past year this has worked well, and my kids have never – until today – felt the need to ask. But Monsters Pet Shop is a compelling game and they wanted to advance further.

I've never shared my iPad password with my children. Not because I don't trust them. I just know how manipulative media can be, and without spoiling them, and taking away from their innocence, I feel duty bound to help make them savvy media consumers. When I watch Wimbledon or the US Open and a commercial comes on, we all yell in unison "buy my product!" which usually sends us into peals of laughter. They know they are being marketed to.

Really, though, I'm promoting what I view as a healthy dose of skepticism, probably because I'm a cynic and have been since I was 7. That's when I saw a commercial for "Johnny Lightning," a toy car/racetrack combo that was popular in the 1970s. The ad made it look so awesome. (Want to see it? Click here.) I waited and waited until my birthday, when my parents gave it to me. Finally, I tore off the wrapping and set it up and… It was a dud. It looked nothing like the toy on the TV commercial. I was crushed.

Then there was the Apple Jacks incident, as my mother later referred to it. That's when I pleaded with her to buy a breakfast cereal that boasted that "a bowl a day keeps the bullies away," and promised that Kellogg's Apple Jacks would not be sold to bullies. (Click here for that ad.) Well, an older, bigger kid up the street had taunted me, and after I munched through two bowls I marched up the street only to find him finishing breakfast. He was, of course, eating Apple Jacks.

At any rate, in the case of Monster Pet Shop, my kids wanted to purchase more "monster berries" to take better care of their pets – brushes, cleaning stuff, toys and food. They are priced at $4.99 for 50 berries, $9.99 for 125 berries, and so on.

I tried to treat it as a teachable moment. I said they could buy whatever they wanted as long as they paid for it out of their savings. While we don't give our children an allowance (I'm sure that day is coming soon) they have done odd jobs, made a few bucks off the Tooth Fairy, things like that. Thus far each kid has amassed about $40 or so.

Now they were faced with a conundrum. If each chipped in $2.50, that would be more then they get for losing a tooth, since our going rate is two bucks. Suddenly, they made the connection between the virtual (the game and the additional products the company sold) and real honest-to-goodness money.

My 9-year-old concluded it wasn't worth it. "I'm never playing that game again," she said. "They just want me to give them money."

But my 7-year-old still wanted to do it, so badly, in fact, that she was willing to pay the entire $5 herself. She raced to her room, grabbed her piggybank, dumped out all the loose change and bills on the rug, handed me a grubby, crumpled five-dollar bill, and, deeply conflicted, began to sob.

Image via Apple iTunes