Microtransactions. That’s one of the latest buzzwords in the gaming community—and if you’ve ever played a casual game like Candy Crush, you know what it means. It’s the “only 99 cents!” pay-as-you-go model of gaming, where you might end up spending a lot of money, but you don’t notice it. This can be a problem when it comes to kids.

Kids don’t often have the presence of mind or deep understanding of bank accounts and balances that adults do. They see “only 99 cents” and they don’t question it—it’s easy to click that pay button, especially if there’s already an account hooked up to it. There is no physical transaction here. Money isn’t actually leaving their hands. (In most cases, money literally isn’t leaving their hands, because it’s not their money to begin with.)

There are countless stories of young kids accidentally spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars of their parents’ money. Sometimes they don’t even realize they’re doing it, and other times they don’t recognize the impact of what they’re doing. Every once in a while they do know and understand what they’re doing, but they think they can get away with it, until Mom is billed for all those extra moves. Even then, most kids don’t recognize that what they’re doing is stealing.

The other piece of the story is that microtransactions aren’t limited to casual gaming anymore. More and more games are accessible online, even if they aren’t multiplayer, and they often give players the option of buying things—access, items, more time, more levels. Major studios have caught on to the trend. Grand Theft Auto is set to make about $1 million in microtransactions over the next five years. (Check out this story to find out what seasoned gamers think about microtransactions.)

Apple recently entered into a class-action lawsuit about the issue. In this case, it was parents suing for iTunes purchases made without their consent, but the same rules can apply to microtransactions in other media. We may be moving, as a society, toward a more accountable and safe means of in-game spending. Nicholas Lovell at Gamasutra has written a good piece on why the lawsuit was a good thing for parents, kids, and the industry.

For now, though, parents should keep an eye on what their kids are putting money toward, even if it’s their own money. It’s a good opportunity to have a discussion about value. Here are a few ideas:

  • Use something physical to demonstrate what in-game purchases represent. For instance, a cache of chocolates, or a minute of game time for each cent spent—kids need to actually see and feel the consequences of spending money, especially if it isn’t their own.
  • On that note, make them use their own money. If they don’t have any, they won’t be able to buy things. Alternatively, you can set up an allowance or chore system where they earn a small amount of money.
  • Don’t give your kids your credit card number. But also remember that most games and apps will save credit card information, so even if they don’t remember the number, they might still be able to use it.
  • Most importantly, discuss money with your kids. Many games have an in-game value system that doesn’t translate to real life (for instance, gil in Final Fantasy or gold pieces in Warcraft). Resource management is key to many RTS games. It’s never too early to open up a discussion about the value of things, whether they’re digital or physical.

Finally, it’s important that everyone in the family trusts one another. However, that doesn’t mean you have to put your credit card information and life savings in the hands of an 8-year-old. Keep your PIN number safe, make sure your kids have to ask when they want to buy something, and—most importantly—make sure you’re the one entering the information. After all, even as an adult, if I had to ask my parents every time I spent another dollar on Candy Crush, I’d be keeping my bank account in a happier place!

This article was written by

Keezy is a gamer, illustrator, and designer. Her background is in teaching and tutoring kids from ages 9 to 19, and she's led workshops for young women in STEM. She is also holds a certificate in teaching English. Her first memory of gaming is when her dad taught her to play the first Warcraft when she was five. You can find her at Key of Zee and on Twitter @KeezyBees.