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I have never played an online game. I’m an outlier. For lack of a better term, online gaming companies print money. The industry is remarkably successful at getting and keeping clients, mostly because online gaming creates an addiction. Online gaming isn’t unlike the way casinos create certain sounds and visuals to keep gamblers, gambling. The online gaming industry creates a winning process at lower levels that become progressively harder as the player advances. Playing creates a high that isn’t just stimulating and “rewarding” to the human brain but researchers have found it to be addictive.
And, like software engineers at Facebook who found that their product was addictive, the gaming industry knew, or should have known, early on, that their products were addictive. What does a pusher do with drugs? The pusher offers the first “tastes” for free, and then once the client is hooked the product is no longer free – the client has to pay. As the high gets harder to reach, the cost goes up, and up.
Epic Gaming was one of the industry leaders in printing money and hooking users. Epic makes Fortnite. Fortnite has, by one estimate, 400 million users. The amount of teens and pre-teens is hard to gauge because the pre-teens often lie about their age. In any event, the statistics for Fornite players show that 85 percent of players are under 35, and almost 90 percent are male.
18-24: 62 percent
25-34: 22.5 percent
Published statistics don’t reveal how many pre-teen children lie about their age and play as 18-year-olds. One thing is clear, Epic had been gathering personal data from and about children. When, for example, a parent learned that their 10-year-old was spending massive amounts of time gaming with Fortnite, “it was nearly impossible” to get Epic to delete that information.
And, Epic wasn’t just gathering data on everyone who played their “free” money-printing game, they were raking in massive amounts of cash. How could a “free” game make money? Most people, even those who have never played, know that the first taste of Fortnite is free. But if you really want the “high,” you need to pay for it. Tokens, armor, weapons, and the ability to advance, all cost money. “Do you want the high, kid? Ok, kid, you have to pay for it.”
On Monday, the feds did something good: They announced a record settlement with Epic Games. The gaming company will pay a $520 million settlement. The FTC had pursued Epic Games because the company had collected data and information from children. The company had also, “tricked millions of players into making unintentional purchases.”
According to the New York Times:
Epic agreed to pay $275 million to settle regulators’ accusations that it violated a federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, by collecting personal information from children under 13 who played Fortnite without obtaining verifiable consent from a parent. In addition, the company made parents “jump through hoops” to have their children’s data deleted and sometimes failed to honor parents’ deletion requests, the agency said in a legal complaint filed on Monday.
The amount dwarfs the $170 million penalty — the previous record for child privacy violations — that Google agreed to pay in 2019 over accusations that it illegally harvested data from children on YouTube and used it to target them with ads.
Beyond paying the record fine, Epic will make voice chat and live text chat harder to use for its youngest users. The settings for that demographic will “default” to “off” for those chat features. Additionally, Epic will refund 245 million dollars to users (and parents) for its manipulative practices known as “dark patterns” which guided users to purchase items with a single push of a button.
According to Epic:
“No developer creates a game with the intention of ending up here,” the company said in a statement. “We accepted this agreement because we want Epic to be at the forefront of consumer protection and provide the best experience for our players.”
That is a carefully worded statement prepared by a lawyer. I read it like the drug pusher who got caught and sentenced. He’s not the least bit sorry for what he did, but he’s really sorry for getting caught.
Epic made about 5.4 billion in 2021 so the FTC fine and refund really won’t hurt much. The “drug” is still there. The pusher paid his fine — and now it’s back to business.