A mobile game used by schools to teach maths through a fantasy role-playing world has been accused of unfairly manipulating children into paying more than $100 a year for premium items.
Prodigy, which offers versions for in-school and at-home play, is the centre of a complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission submitted by a coalition of children’s rights groups led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC).
“While it does cost nothing for schools to implement Prodigy, the in-school version encourages children to play at home,” CCFC says in its complaint. “And when children play at home, they are met with a steady stream of advertisements promoting a ‘premium annual membership’ that costs up to $107.40.”
The advertising tactics are standard for free-to-play games: members of the “premium” membership have exclusive access to a plethora of cosmetic items, and those without are constantly reminded of that fact. “The avatars of kids without memberships literally walk in dirt while those of kids with memberships ride around on clouds,” CCFC says.
Prodigy’s biggest markets are the US, Australia and Canada, where it is among the top 100 educational apps. In the US alone it is reportedly used by “millions” of students across more than 90,000 schools. And the company has eyes on expansion to the UK: it advertises itself to teachers as offering “curriculum-aligned” maths problems for years one to six of the English schooling system.
Prodigy argues that its platform is age-appropriate. “No paid subscription is required for students to continue receiving completely free access to all of the educational content in the game, which has been designed by our team of accredited teachers,” a spokesperson said. “Like all services with subscription models, we do surface the benefits of our membership features from time to time to make users aware that memberships exist and what their benefits might be.”
Crucially, the visible advantages of a premium subscription are retained even when playing at school, where adverts for the paid features are otherwise disabled. “Prodigy’s model is the equivalent of giving wealthy kids in a classroom a shiny new textbook with a surprise toy inside, while kids from low-income families get an old, beaten-up edition,” CCFC said. “And as kids play, they can tell who are the haves and have-nots.”
In a wider campaign, CCFC is pushing for Google to implement a slew of standards to protect children on its app store. The group says Google should adopt stricter rules for apps marked as “for children”, requiring a human review of each app and banning in-app purchases, unfair advertising and illegal data collection.