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Mom, Please Feed My Apps June 13, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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That was the title of an amusing feature in Wall Street Journal last Saturday, which discussed the strategy of mobile games in getting children interested, then charging to get to higher levels of the game.  The article also noted that 60 percent of children aged 8 to 11 had smartphones from which to play mobile games.

Now, I admit to being of an age when phones were rotary-dial and children may have access to a dime to make a pay phone call, so I read such numbers with a bit of amazement.

But there is a serious issue here.  For decades advertisers have found ways of enticing children to their products.  In one sense, mobile games represent a continuation of that strategy.  And it’s a particularly insidious continuation, because the gratification is instantaneous.  There’s no need to save money over time for these games (young children purported can’t make online purchases; they have to be enabled by adults), and there’s no need to wait to go to a physical store.

In my college years I was a fan of singing mathematician and comedian Tom Lehrer.  In 1948 (no, I am not that old), he penned a ditty called The Old Dope Peddler.  I’m reminded of one of the verses from this song:

He gives the kids free samples, because he knows full well,
That today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele.

We may in fact be getting them hooked on something very addictive at a young age.  Of course, you might argue that if parents weren’t so inclined to use mobile games as a distraction for their children, this form of instant gratification wouldn’t exist.

And certainly games themselves aren’t automatically a bad thing.  But the commercial need to get a youthful user on the hook, and keep them on the hook through the life of the game, causes me to question the value of the game itself.

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