Roblox’s sketchy monetization attracts kids, parents, and hungry corporations alike

    
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Would you pay your kids’ allowance in virtual currency? That’s the frame for a piece today on The Wall Street Journal, which offers an eyebrow-raisingly credulous skim of Roblox’s monetization tactics.

WSJ begins with a family that grants allowance in Robux – Roblox’s currency – instead of actual money, at the kids’ request, because they feel they have more control over what they buy if they’re not relying on their parents for transportation to stores. The article claims they’re “part of a massive cohort of tech-savvy youngsters who are learning to flex their financial independence through Roblox,” a game where around half of the 60 million daily players are under 13 and are being explicitly targeted by corporations like Chipotle, Walmart, and Nike with in-game adverts posing as play. The claim here is that monetization tools like subs and currency are being specifically designed so parents can dole them out as allowance in this kiddo version of a metaverse filled with “marketing disguised as entertainment,” which is characterized here as a positive adaptation in the digital era but of course is something watchdog groups have been calling out as abusive “advergames” for a while now.

WSJ does note that Roblox’s incomes for this game targeting kids under 13 and their flustered parents grew sixfold over the past three years thanks to sales from Robux specifically. But it doesn’t mention that the company has also reported two straight years of net losses since going public with more anticipated; Q3 2022 alone saw a net revenue loss of $302 million dollars. Actual dollars, not Robux. It also doesn’t mention the owners’ shady tax history.

The article further posits that Roblox isn’t like other games in that it “outsources development to anyone willing to put in the effort” – an inspiring fable that falls apart the moment we remember the now well-documented reality that Roblox’s creation platform, payment systems, currency conversions, and promotion algorithms are designed to exploit children for their labor and coin in what is essentially an online “company town” where the workers are underpaid kids lured in with false promises and subjected to crunch and burnout and how the heck is any of this legal.

To WSJ’s credit, it does briefly mention parents’ worries about the potential for game scams and the challenge of teaching the value of money in the digital age; it even quotes a study that demonstrated the harm for gambling-esque mechanics like lootboxes and “blind packs” in Roblox and other games.

“A newly released three-year study concluded that in-game sales of blind packs of virtual goods can cause ‘financial and emotional harm’ to teenagers and children. The study, published by Newcastle and Loughborough Universities in the U.K., tracked the videogaming habits of 42 families with children between the age of 5 and 17. It also concluded that the design of in-game paid-reward systems borrows elements from regulated gambling to entice players to spend more time and money in games.”

Of course, Roblox is problematic for parents, kids, players, and makers even if they never touch a lockbox or spend a dime.

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