illustration: Lilah Cottingham

Fuck you, Gameloft

Today was the kind of day a special needs mom dreams about.

Sure, Peanut was a bit balky about getting out of the car and into school; he’d had a couple of rough days in a row, and the hangover made him nervous about facing a new day of classes.

But the second he walked through the school doors, his frown faded, and he threw himself into his first-period math class with the enthusiasm of…well, an Aspie boy facing a board full of numbers. Then he made some serious headway on his science project about what it would take to turn tungsten, the element with the highest melting point, into a gas. He joined his language studies class for the latest chapter in their class novel, and participated in his drama class rehearsal for the school play.

Considering his absolute refusal to attend any classes for the past two days, this was no small victory. Attending four out of his five classes meant he was eligible for his thirty minutes of end-of-day console time, but the real prize was his elated mood, and the broad smile that announced his happiness.

Whenever Peanut actually complete’s the lion’s share of his schoolday, he is on top of the world — kind of like a border collie who’s been kept cooped up in an apartment, and then finally released into a field of sheep. He practically glows with the satisfaction of working his brain hard, and feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Peanut’s Granny (a.k.a. my mom) rarely gets to see him at his most fulfilled, so I suggested stopping by for a quick visit on her way home. Unfortuately, I only gave her about 30 seconds’ warning, so she didn’t have a chance to put her iPad away.

That’s where the trouble began.

Peanut got his hands on Granny’s iPad the moment we walked through the door, and immediately launched one of the many games he has installed on it: Spider-Man Unlimited. Even that might have been ok, if I hadn’t offered to walk my mom’s dog; the moment he saw I was about to walk out the door, Peanut tried to corner his Granny with an in-app purchase request.

The purchase? A mere $19.99 for “ISO-8”, the in-game currency that players can spend — or acquire — to unlock additional lives and goodies. If it seems insane to spend real money to acquire fake money, then you are unfamiliar with the massive and ever-expanding crop of “freemium” games that suck kids in with free downloads, and then goad them into making in-app currency purchases in order to have a better in-game experience.

Gameloft, the maker of Spider-Man Unlimited, is one of the companies that has realized that this is a very lucrative business model. Make your games free, so as many kids download them as possible: since lots of parents leave their phone settings so that only paid purchases need parental approval, you’ve just made it past the first obstacle. Next, make the games slow, boring or virtually unplayable without currency, so your little gamers will be desperate for in-app purchases. Finally, price your purchases to make expensive bundles look like a good deal. No wonder the company has been the subject of regulatory investigations and complaints about price gouging.

I hate this kind of scam, which is why I refuse to let Peanut download games that sell in-game currency. But some of them still end up on my phone — this kid is good at getting around restrictions! — so I have made it clear that I will never acquiesce to in-app purchases.

Grandparents, of course, are another matter, which is why Peanut tried to hit his Granny up for an ISO-8 fix. I stepped in to rescue her.

“These are a scam, Peanut,” I told him. “The people who make these games create them to sucker kids. I don’t want Granny to spend her money with them.”

“Stay out of this!” Peanut growled. The wheedling continued, in a soft tone. “Please Granny. I’m asking very nicely. This would mean a lot to me.”

My mom backed me up. “I’m not spending $20 on something you’re going to play for fifteen minutes.”

Peanut wheeled around and glared at me. “This is your fault!!”

For the next fifteen minutes, Peanut cycled through his different strategies: begging, yelling, storming, pleading. Finally, he stormed upstairs, where my mom and I listed to him mutter, scream and pound on the floor. I hoped he might calm himself down, but after a few more minutes, I retrieved him and brought him back downstairs.

“You need to stop muttering and growling, or we’ll need to go home,” I told him.

In a remarkably smart move, Peanut switched from the Spider-Man game to YouTube, so that he wouldn’t continue to long for ISO-8. He settled in to watch a video, and his growling turned to tears.

“This is the worst day ever,” he cried, as his face melted.

“I know how hard this is,” I told him while he sobbed. “You had a great day until now.”

“And now you’ve RUINED it,” he shouted through his sobs. “I just want some ISO-8.”

His crying slowed over the course of the next half hour, but that buoyant smile — the grin he’d earned by having a great day at school — well, that never came back. He returned home subdued and still somewhat tearful, and even his hard-earned console time couldn’t restore his sense of pride and accomplishment in his great day at school.

So fuck you, Gameloft. Fuck you for taking my autistic child’s amazing day of school, and turning into a day of frustration.

Fuck you for choosing a business model that is almost perfectly designed to drive anxious, autistic or challenged kids totally nuts. That lures kids in with tie-ins to the most popular characters and franchises — the ones the other kids talk about, the ones they want to befriend and be like. That slides free downloads past parents’ carefully constructed restrictions so that you can provide these kids with a daily dose of frustration. That tempts kids with poor impulse control into sneaking or pestering or stealing their way into the currency your games depend on. That plays to every hard-wired or learned anxiety about missing out with your deceptive promises of limited-time, can’t-miss deals.

Fuck you, especially, because I bet many of you were once little boys or girls not so different from my Peanut. You were incredibly smart and a little (or a lot) weird and maybe you even had a label like “ADHD” or “sensitive” or “Aspergers”. Some of you had friends and some of you didn’t and some of you were lonely and some of you did terribly in school.

Then you discovered computers and programming and videogames and the Internet and the world opened up for you. You discovered that even though people can be frustrating and unpredictable, the world of the screen follows rules that make sense. You discovered that even when you are too awkard or too enthusiastic or too twitchy to make friends face to face, you could have conversations and friendships online. You discovered that even though your childhood was a rollercoaster of exclusions and frustrations and slights, videogames were something you could be good at.

You were just lucky enough to have that childhood before some clever asshole came along and invented the freemium business model.

But it’s not too late for you to experience the highs and lows of gaming as an autistic boy in the era of the mobile app store. I’m prepared to offer you an exclusive, limited-time opportunity to play a new, fully immersive game.

It’s called Say No To The In-Game Purchase.

In this game, you’re the caregiver of a sensitive, autistic or anxious child (no, you don’t get to choose the child character: it’s the luck of the draw). Game play consists of the child pestering you to make an in-game purchase, and your challenge is to resist. Give in, and you begin a new cycle of pestering. Resist, and you get to enjoy a tantrum.

Best of all, Gameloft developers, this experience is yours for free. Email or tweet me today, and I will be pleased to offer Say No To The In-Game Purchase with absolutely no up-front charges. That’s right: hours of screaming, crying and frustrated pleas for purchases can be yours, today!

Of course, you will need $100 Peanut Bucks in order to conclude your gaming experience. And don’t worry, Peanut Bucks are easily purchased in-game. Today only, 80% off!