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Teen spends over $8000 on FIFA on Xbox, highlighting EA's predatory game design practices once again

Fifa 20 Key Art
Fifa 20 Key Art (Image credit: EA)

Recently, I met a friend from school that I hadn't seen for some time. Being the Xbox dude I am, I showed him Xbox Game Pass, Project xCloud game streaming, and a range of other features Xbox has that he was completely unaware of. As kids, we played Xbox games almost non-stop, skipping school to smash each other in Halo and forming blisters on our thumbs playing Street Fighter. Alas, my buddy has three kids of his own now, and his free time to game has certainly waned.

EA has been in the spotlight for predatory game design practices before, and most likely will be again.

Many "gamers" live in a bubble, where we remain a tad ignorant of how the vast majority of consumers engage with Xbox, PlayStation, and other gaming platforms. The average player only grabs a few games per year, and spends a lot of time jumping on and off a staple few, including Minecraft, Call of Duty, Fortnite, and EA's FIFA.

Even the most technologically aware parents generally seem unaware of things like Xbox Game Pass and beyond. Perhaps more problematically, many parents often seem unaware of how modern AAA games revolve around destructive gameplay loops, particularly if they're from EA.

EA has been in the spotlight for predatory game design practices before, and most likely will be again. Star Wars Battlefront II with its pay-to-win lite mechanics was met with a furious backlash from core gamers and shooter fans. However, EA's sports franchises, most notoriously FIFA, effectively have pay-to-win mechanics baked in at a fundamental level in the "FIFA Ultimate Team" (FUT) game mode. FUT combines the most nefarious aspects of addictive game design, pay-to-win, and repeat spending, targeting individuals who may be particularly susceptible to these predatory design conventions. You can argue that adults should be responsible for themselves, but FIFA has a "E for Everyone" ESRB rating. Perhaps the ESRB needs to take another look at these gambling-lite mechanics.

When parental controls aren't enough

FIFA

Source: EA (Image credit: Source: EA)

The heartbreaking post on Mumsnet from anonymous user "NameChangedCosShame" describes a scenario where her teen son was caught spending £6,000 pounds (around $8,300 dollars) on FIFA on Xbox. I've already seen people respond with "well it's the parent's fault," but honestly, setting up parental controls is fairly complicated and laborious even if you're technologically advanced.

The post describes how her son has been particularly hard-hit by the U.K.'s lengthy pandemic lockdown period. From February to September 2020, and then from December 2020 to April 2021, the majority of UK schools were shut down, with kids pushed onto Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls to do their work. All socializing was canceled and the news feeds bleet 24/7 about how dangerous everything was. It wasn't a fun time for anyone, least of all a kid, which was cited as a reason for his frivolous FIFA spending.

Fifa Ultimate Team Predatory

Source: Mumsnet via NameChangedCosShame (Image credit: Source: Mumsnet via NameChangedCosShame)

Even if the post is fabricated in some way (and there's no reason to believe it is), there are countless other examples of this occurring across the years. Psychological studies have shown time and time again how gambling addiction can rise hand-in-hand with a decline in mental health. EA knowingly exploits this fact with its games.

You can argue that the parent should've put parental controls on the Xbox, and they do exist to block this scenario from happening. However, this excuses EA and others for intentionally designing a game system around exploitation. If you're a stressed and busy parent who comes from an era where video game consoles didn't have these parental control features you may not even understand why they're necessary. There's frankly not enough education about this stuff, and every time somebody's kid slips through the cracks, we get a scenario like this.

FIFA Ultimate Team is mired in gambling

Fifa 21 Gameplay

Source: Electronic Arts (Image credit: Source: Electronic Arts)

Many games have loot boxes these days, or at least something like them. In Overwatch, the game rewards you for repeatedly playing the game by giving you a shiny magical present filled with shiny skins and other items, mimicking those nostalgic Christmas hooks from your childhood. Fortnite does something similar, as do many others. I'd argue that FIFA Ultimate Team steps a little further into classical gambling, however, since the cards you get can actually be traded, and have some form of monetary value. FIFA also has the added clout of real-world football licenses, bringing celebrity adoration into the equation. It's a perfect storm for exploitation.

Like real football, players have different value levels and skill. FIFA players who have better players in their team will, potentially, be more proficient in competitive play online. The game is supposed to match you with decks of similar value, but how is there any way to know if you're losing because you don't have that special player you want on your team?

It's not just about the money. It's about the erosion of mental health through predatory game design and marketing.

My friend from school went into some detail about FIFA Ultimate Team since he doesn't have time to jump on World of Warcraft and some of the other games we used to play. Plus, like many kids, his adore football, so it's a way for them to all bond. Even my friend who is well into his thirties lamented the addictive qualities of FUT, joking how he'd acquire new players and expect them to make his teams better, only to end up losing to a more "powerful" team.

He's an adult though. There's an argument to be made that adults should be able to do whatever they wish with their own money. I've betted on horse racing before for a laugh, and you know, if it's fun, fine. The problem is when casual gambling becomes gambling addiction, and thus self-destructive.

EA and platform holders, quite honestly, have a responsibility to ensure the games they're making billions of dollars on shouldn't cause harm to individuals or families. It would be easy to make a FIFA game that was still fun and engaging, yet didn't prey on the psychological vulnerabilities of individuals susceptible to self-destructive addictive behavior. These games would still make millions, and yeah, execs like Activision's Bobby Kotick might have to forfeit a yacht upgrade or two. But allow me to play the world's smallest violin.

Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, and the ESRB need to step up

EA's cringe-worthy defense of its gambling mechanics being "ethical."

I'm sorry lads, but "they should've turned on parental controls" isn't enough in this scenario. This keeps happening time and time again. These games and these consoles are being sold to kids, with marketing aimed at kids. Platform holders need to do a better job to educate parents on what these so-called "E for Everyone" ESRB-rated games can actually do to a youngster susceptible to gambling addiction. They also need to work harder to push parental control restrictions onto consoles by default.

Source: Mumsnet via NameChangedCosShameNameChangedCosShame explains that her son started buying things due to an EA "sale" on special packs, leading to a vicious purchasing cycle. (Image credit: Source: Mumsnet via NameChangedCosShame)

The ESRB and governments should consider taking the position that FIFA and other games with gambling-like structures should come with an 18-rating. Sell FIFA Ultimate Team separately with an 18-rating if you want. Casinos often carry 18 plus entry restrictions for this very reason.

I don't buy this argument that "it's the parents fault," and neither should you. It's not just about the money. It's about the erosion of mental health through predatory, manipulative game design and marketing. EA actively pushes and partners with YouTubers with disposeable income, bragging about their card pulls too. EA knows what it's doing, and doesn't seem to give a shit about the potential consequences.

There's always going to be situations where people slip through the cracks, whether they're kids or not. Stop apologizing for billion-dollar corporations that only care about harvesting cash, responsibly or not. Addiction can happen to anyone, at any time, 18+ or not. And I know I'm by no means the first person to highlight this stuff, and hopefully won't be the last. Either way, it's about time that gaming companies took a long look at themselves and asked if they're okay with exploiting susceptible individuals this way.

If you're concerned about gambling addiction, resources like the NCPG in the U.S. and the NHS in the UK may be able to help.

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

20 Comments
  • What about games like this (any game with lootboxes) are forced into a sort of default Parental Control Mode where if you do nothing, the kid can't spend any money. This sort of thing won't happen any more and people like me that want to spend tons of cash have to go in and turn everything off. Put the hard stuff (menu after menu to change a setting) on the ones who WANT to spend the money. Everyone wins.
  • Yeah, parental controls / age verification by default could help. But that's just it, the ESRB says FIFA etc. are "safe" for "Everyone" according to their age ratings. I might try to reach out to the ESRB to comment.
  • Ok, while I fully agree these companies do some shady stuff when it comes to game design, at a certain point parents need to have some kind of responsibility for their children. I have seen too many times a 12 year old on a main account that just gets to play CoD or some other game they shouldn't be playing and full access to everything with no supervision. These are always the first parents to try to blame others for their child's actions. Maybe when you have children one day Jez you will see this too. There is no excuse with the types of controls that Microsoft gives in child accounts for out of control spending in games. It is NOT hard to set up a child account, MS basically does it for you. Even if it were too hard for some people, the easiest solution is don't tie a payment method on the main account!!!
  • Completely agree with you. It's ridiculous blaming EA for this, totally irresponsible conduct of the parents or guardians or whoever was the actual owner of the funds. It would be the same if you gave any kid a credit card and permitted them to go wild on Amazon, BestBuy, Newegg or any other online store. The kid just thinks it's fine to get 'anything' they want. Pretty sure it only takes a few minutes to spend the same amount on Amazon. Or would we say Amazon is predatory because they have stuff on sale? Even I as a 'responsible adult' needs to curb all the impulse buys of these tech toys and games, let alone a kid.
  • Parental controls are a pain to set up but are effective. I have a passcode on everything and my kids don't know it. They can't even get on the Xbox or PC outside their designated window much less spend money. I have even activated two-factor on purchases and tied one of my credit cards that give me phone notifications for purchases. So, if anything is purchased on the Xbox, I know immediately. But that only works for my account. At 13, my child can technically go to Xbox and set up her own account. It is only the physical restriction to my credit cards that prevent her from being able to repeat this story. (Thought I may have the Xbox limited for accounts I haven't already set up). That said, Microsoft can do more. Family Game Pass could help as it would encourage families to set up actual child accounts rather than sharing a single account and would give kids more to do without the need to engage in these types of antics. There are plenty of multiplayer games in Game Pass. Raising the online consent age from idiotically low 13 to the legal age (18 in US) would also mean that even setting up the devices or accounts would require adult interaction, especially since in many states you cannot even legally enforce a contract made with someone under the age of 18. So, why allow anyone under 18 just free reign of the cesspool that is the internet? And I agree that these type of games should be rated in a way they can be blanked banned by parental controls. That would at least force EA to either change their pricing structure so that the games are actually relative to what they cost to make with all characters free or rework the entire mechanic to be less predatory. Failure to do so will get governments involved and the industry doesn't want that.
  • I agree. Casting a wider net on this, my children will perpetually be 13 and under in relation to Google since I can't control large aspects of their accounts after that age. If I'm legally responsible for them, then I should be the one deciding what they can and can't have access to while living in my home
  • As a father of 6 children. I'm sorry Jez, but it's the parents fault.
  • There is no way to blame EA for this. Yes, they are predatory for purchases. But so are most products. If you give access to your credit card unsupervised you bet they will use it. This is a failure of parenting, nothing more, nothing less.
  • The problem is they are 'predatory for purchase' AND aimed directly at children. If they are 'predatory for purchase' they should have an R Rating and not be available for children. I have children and am pretty hard core in locking computers down but the reality is not many people knows how to lock down computers for children and even if they do they see an Everybody rating and think it's fine. It should not have an Everybody rating.
  • There are a lot of people blaming the parents in the comments. Fine. Let's not let EA off completely though eh? Why is is even possible to spend 8k on FIFA? That's insane. Same goes for those phone games that let you buy $500 worth of gems/crystals/beans with a single click. It's likely a lot of parents don't realise it's even possible to spend that much on what seems like a straightforward game. Companies should be required to state the maximum amount that can be spend on "in game purchases". People might look askance at games that allow the user to spend "up to infinite dollars". Some people are saying the parents are just as stupid as someone who give the kids unlimited access to their Amazon account but I don't think that's true. For a lot of people it's not at all clear a kid can easily spend that much money on a football game and companies like EA like it that way.
  • To be honest, a lot of parents are clueless about technology. My husband and I are both tech saavy so we know about parental controls and how to set them up for our kids but not all parental controls are created equal. Depending on the platform, you can wind up with controls that are just a toggle to turn everything off which results in kids just coming to their parents for every little thing until the parents get tired and just leave the controls off. Alternatively, you wind up with controls that are just layers and layers of menus that assume parents even understand what they are turning off. Many parents just rely on the rating on the box to tell them what is appropriate or assume that video games are just for kids. There is a disconnect for sure and, to take it a step further, I'd say that there are people who don't understand that digital gambling is a thing because they associate gambling with adult activities like slot machines, poker, horse race betting etc. That these things are in games for kids is unthinkable for many people.
  • I've been using pcs since 80s and building them since the 90s. My ms parental controls are setup, but I can't figure out how to get my kid to play EA games bc of their separate login without just letting him play PvZ on my account. Does EA charge thru or outside of Xbox live?
  • Why are you singling out EA when this is something that every major publisher is guilty of (except maybe Sony, I don't know of any games by them with predatory practices like loot boxes and other gambling entities but I also game a lot less on PlayStation). That being said I am more than happy putting an 18+ rating on anything with gambling aspects to it's cosmetics/gameplay.
  • And the video document revealed leaks : " enjoy surprise mechanics"
    Target the childrens, it's horrible, but they like it.
    Active parental control.
    It's game for parents.
    Fortnite have billions players, Nintendo have billions players, and Ea want billions players, it's normal, chairmans (lobbyyers ?)
    Not gambling because in reality for Ea there are not chance to lose.
  • He could've bought a real player from the third division
  • Both are very much responsible. EA and the parents. EA for preying on children, and the do. The parents for not doing their research and oversight. Effectively EA (and others) have built a casino for kids. If no one her sees a problem with that then you never will. There are reasons a child can't walk into a grocery store and buy a lottery ticket. There are rules in place that the parent doesn't control. The same should exist here. I think we all forget the things 20-30 years ago when we were kids. Most of our parents probably weren't tech savvy. Mine weren't. They would have no clue how to set up parental controls on routers, web browers, OS etc. Just because everyone here is well above average in tech doesn't mean that we are the norm. We aren't. Your regular parents would have no idea how to set these things up and game developers know this. That's why they created it.
  • What it highlights is bad parenting and blaming everyone else for it. This does not keep happening time and time again. These are rare cases and usually because the parents are too lazy to take the first steps that they would at any other place that a credit card can be used easily. I bet these same parents wouldn't hand their kid the credit card willy nilly or let him have access to their Amazon account. But, if they did would it be Spencers or Amazon's fault if he raked up the bills?. And the fact you aren't a parent is the reason you put all the blame elsewhere, scapegoating it on these publishers. My kids (as 8th on the way) all have rules and they know them. I took the time to be a parent and not let EA or Xbox be responsible for my children beyond the tools provided. These parents didn't. How hard is it to use Microsoft's own parenting utilities to lock the ability to do any of this? The answer, not hard at all. In fact, just set up the account as a child avoids many problems without doing anything else. But apparently, they didn't even do basic steps. Probably gave him complete access, with their own accounts. Again no different than giving the kid access to their Amazon account)
  • Someone should make a game called Game Dev CEO Sim.
    It's purely mtx and the stuff you can buy for your ceo character gives them things.
  • The ESRB is a joke. The organization doesn't even play the games. It relies on the company telling them what's in the game and that's how they come up with a rating. Madden, Fifa, all of these games with loot boxes, ultimate teams, card packs, etc. need to be rated 'Adults only.' These companies are only looking at the profits being made and not the consequences. The ESRB needs to become a real governing body and not just a paper tiger. They're going to mess around and get the government involved and we all know that's only going to make things worse.
  • I have news for you. Are you sitting down? EA is a business. As such, their #1 priority is to make money. Sell products. Make profits for shareholders. Period. Helping to raise your kids is NOT their job. That is YOUR job. If my daughter got hold of my VISA card and spent $1,000 on whatever, I would NOT be blaming VISA. The "parents" in this story need to suck it up and admit they screwed up. Blaming EA - or even better, the "pandemic" - is lazy, absurd AND a blatant admission that you are a horrible parent. Your dumb kid does not know right from wrong. That is no one's fault but yours. Deal with it. Be involved in your child's life. Know what he/she is doing when he/she is on the internet. Don't leave them unsupervised for hours/days at a time.