Child protection nonprofit alleges ‘manipulative’ upselling with math game Prodigy

Joan S. Reed

The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, a nonprofit advocacy group, on Friday accused a popular math game used in thousands of elementary schools of using “deceptive marketing and manipulative tactics” in a letter of complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.

Prodigy is a role-playing game aimed at first through eighth graders where players create customized wizard characters that enter “battles” to earn stars and prizes for solving curriculum-aligned math problems. The game has been downloaded more than 7.3 million times in North America since the start of 2019, according to the app researcher App Annie. Prodigy said that more than 90,000 schools globally — two thirds of them in the United States and the rest mostly in Canada, Australia and India — have used it to assign math homework.

While the game is given to schools free for students to play in a restricted mode with only their classmates, when children play the unrestricted version of the game at home, they receive regular reminders and messages encouraging them to become members, which costs $59.88 to $107.40 per child per year.

The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood said in its letter of complaint that during 19 minutes of gameplay it saw 16 unique advertisements for membership and only four math problems. These included messages highlighting how members “have more fun” or get “better pets.”

“Schools are signing up for this thinking it is free and not understanding that there’s enormous commercial pressure put on children and families when they play at home,” said Josh Golin, the campaign’s executive director.

The nonprofit is calling for the agency to investigate Prodigy for deceptive marketing — by telling schools on its website and other marketing materials that the product is “completely free” — and unfair tactics for using persuasive design to promote its paid product to kids.

“The Commission has long recognized the vulnerability of young people to unfair and deceptive practices,” writes the nonprofit in its complaint. “Prodigy is preying upon that vulnerability in a particularly egregious manner because it targets young people, their parents, and our schools in the midst of a pandemic, when families are much more reliant than ever on remote learning.”

James Bigg, a spokesperson for Prodigy Education, the Canadian company that creates the Prodigy game, said in a statement that the company was “proud to provide millions of students, families and schools with completely free access to standards-aligned educational tools to support in-class and at home learning.”

“To support us in offering all of this educational content for free, we also provide optional memberships for families for use outside of school,” he added, noting that the majority of users learn through a free subscription. “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.”

With regards to the specific allegations made by the nonprofit, Bigg added, “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. In all cases, we look to do this responsibly and sparingly so it does not detract from the free gameplay experience or educational quality.”

According to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the concerning elements in the game include showing players the additional stars they could earn if they were members, which would allow them to level-up and advance in the game faster.

NBC News confirmed that when players win a math battle, they are shown two prize treasure chests: one, dull and brown; the other, purple, gold and jewel-encrusted. When a nonmember tries to click on the sparkly chest, it triggers a message that states “members get amazing things” and shows examples such as more gold, better pets and items of clothing for their avatars to wear. Players are prompted to “ask a parent or guardian for help to become a member.”

Similarly members’ characters float around the game on a cloud while nonmembers walk on the ground.

If a child signs up to become a member, their character keeps all of the extra pets, stars and adornments even when playing in the restricted school mode.

“Kids can see who has the cool stuff they got through buying the subscription,” said Golin. “It divides students into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ and that’s extremely concerning.”

Many games and apps use a “freemium” model, offering a basic version of the game for free and making money from a small proportion of subscribers who pay for extra features. But Golin said that this model was not appropriate in a classroom setting.

“If Prodigy wants to continue to be part of schools, they need to come up with a different funding model,” said Golin. “We don’t think you can have a two-tier form of education in schools.”

More than 20 other consumer rights, parent and education advocacy groups including Public Citizen, the Center for Humane Technology, Electronic Privacy Information Center, ParentsTogether, Center for Digital Democracy and Badass Teachers Association co-signed the letter.

But Bigg added that the freemium model has “allowed us to provide free services to millions of students, teachers and parents who otherwise would not have access” and that more than 95 percent of registered users have not paid for a membership.

A screenshot of the Prodigy math app asking users to become members.

Parental pressure

The CCFC was alerted to the game after receiving a string of complaints from parents. Nora Shine, a psychologist and mother-of-two from Boxborough, Massachusetts, said she became concerned when her daughter Sabina, now 10, started pestering her for a membership after playing the game during math class. She said many of her peers’ parents had bought it assuming it had been vetted as an education tool by the school.

“The kids loved it. They were hooked on it in a really disturbing way, but the marketing was the biggest issue,” she said.

Nora refused to buy a membership, which she said made Sabina “mad and disappointed” because the kids in her class who had membership could “do things she couldn’t.”

“They would win more easily,” added Sabina, in an interview with her mother. “It is unfair.”

Nora added, “I tried to talk to her about how they shouldn’t be marketing to kids and that it was a trick to get you to buy things, but she was upset.”

Nora complained to Prodigy via the company’s Facebook page in January 2020, according to screenshots reviewed by NBC News, writing: “It is unfair to all the kids whose parents do not want, or cannot afford, to spend $60 on a video game membership.”

A Prodigy representative responded that the company’s goal was to make the game “as accessible as possible to people,” noting that it did not charge schools and teachers and that all the educational content in the program was free. The company also told Shine it had “scaled back membership ‘ads’ when students are choosing to play at school.”

Katrina Semeniuk, a mother of four from Alberta, Canada, had a similar experience, describing a “constant battle” with two of her kids, now aged 7 and 8, because t
hey wanted memberships. She and her husband said no “on principle,” although many of their children’s classmates paid for a subscription.

Semeniuk said that she wishes Prodigy would offer the game as a one-time purchase rather than a subscription and remove all of the advertising. “There shouldn’t be a per-child monthly fee for something that’s being advertised as an always-free educational type of game,” she said.

A screenshot of the Prodigy math app asking users to become members.

Wrong audience

Some experts said that Prodigy’s exclusionary design was not appropriate for an app aimed at young children. “I get so annoyed when I see adult design standards copied and pasted into kids’ products,” said Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School, who has studied manipulative design in apps aimed at children.

“It would be much more ethical and developmentally appropriate to avoid the FOMO messaging that’s commonly used in adult subscriptions to online platforms,” she said, using an acronym for “fear of missing out.”

Christine Elgersma, senior editor at Common Sense Media, which reviews apps and other media for children, said that “manipulative practices to get kids to make purchases in free games are pretty rampant” in free games.

“Ideally free games would find other ways to meet their financial needs and not address kids directly in a way that puts pressure and interrupts the experience of the game, which diminishes the digital experiences they are having,” she said.

Elgersma warned parents to look out for these kinds of issues in games advertised as free.

“Anything free is either selling data, showing your kids ads, pushing purchases or some combination thereof,” she said. “It’s important to know what combination is happening.”

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