In-game spending

Online money management guide

Working with Barclays Digital Eagles, we have produced this guide where you can find out more about the types of in-game spending that children can be exposed to when playing their favourite online games.

You’ll also get guidance on how to help them have a better understanding of how to manage their money online and make more informed decisions.

What’s on the page

What does research tell us about how children spend money while gaming?

The latest research from Ofcom found that two-thirds of 8-11-year-olds and 72% of 12-15-year-olds are playing online games, highlighting that this is an important part of our children’s lives. A recent report from Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) which looked at gaming during lockdown noted, not surprisingly, that there has been a surge in online gaming with engagement increasing by around 1.5 hours per week.

In the UK, there was an 11% increase in users who said that they had spent more on in-game extras – higher than other EU countries. Indeed, research carried out by Ipsos MORI for Parentzone in 2019 found that 49% of children and young people believed that online video games were only fun when you spent money.

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Things you need to know about in-game spending

Many of the games that children play online are free. As adults, we know things are rarely truly free so it’s worth considering whether something is free to access because we are the product, paying with our data, time or attention.

This is true with online games but often there will be a product that is bought which can lead users to believe that they are getting something for their money whether that be unlocking a new level or acquiring a new skin (like an accessory in the game that a player can use or where which won’t actually increase a character’s ability or help them to succeed within the game).

What are children spending money on?

In-game purchases (or micro-transactions) are important here – they are part of both paid for and free games and encourage the player to spend money within the gaming environment, often to unlock new levels or features.

  • Unlocking in-game characters
  • Unlocking levels in-game
  • Games that are free-to-play featuring in-app purchases to encourage players to make small purchases of in-game skins and other accessories
    • Quite often once players are invested in a particular game they will then realise that to unlock more levels and continue playing with or against their friends, they need to pay
  • Watching advert videos in order to unlock more power, time or weapons etc
  • Loot boxes – these contain an element of chance as the end-user is not aware of what they are going to get

Spending real money on virtual items is not new for kids

It is important to be clear that none of this is new, children have long tried to be popular with their mates at school by having the latest trainers or collectables – things have just moved online. Even in the online space, this is well-established back in 2010, Habbo Hotel hit the headlines when it became clear that some young people were spending real money to decorate their virtual hotel room with the latest flatscreen TV or furniture. Furthermore the virtual goods had a value and were being stolen and re-sold.

Are loot boxes something to worry about?

There has been a lot of discussion about loot boxes recently. Research from Ofcom – Children’s media lives: Life in lockdown found that behaviours observed in the study were underpinning trends evolving over previous years including:

  • The development of new in-app and in-game purchasing mechanisms, including loot boxes and the sharing of these through videos on social media.

The House of Lords Gambling Committee published a report in 2020 which stated that video game loot boxes should be regulated under gambling laws. If a product looks like gambling and feels like gambling, it should be regulated as gambling.

Changes to rating system on games

PEGI (Pan European Game Information) has assigned generic in-game purchase labels to video games since the end of 2018. This will inform parents, prior to purchase, about the possibility of spending money within a video-game. This now applies to games bought online or in-store.

Growth of online gaming and in-game spending during lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly had an impact on online gaming with the popular online gaming platform Steam breaking its own record for the highest number of players playing at the same time on the platform six times during 2020 as reported by Eurogamer. Findings from Barclays Games and Esports report also revealed that the games industry saw the largest increase in spending in 2020, up by 43% compared to 2019.

Data from ISFE (Nov 2019) suggests that the majority of young people (6-15) who are spending money in-game are spending less than £20 a month on average. Rooster Money carried out research with 24,000 children in the UK between April and June 2020 and found that video games were more popular than sweets, books and magazines. Similarly, research carried out by Simon-Kucher noted that gamers spent 39% more on gaming during COVID-19 than before and expect to spend 21% more in a post-COVID-19 world.

FAQ: What is the impact of mobile gaming on in-gaming spending

In 2019 Call of Duty: Mobile and Mario Kart Tour both launched on mobile which clearly showed that mobile is the key area of growth for the industry. As people potentially have more free time as a result of lockdown there has been an increase in mobile gaming. In-game items trading platforms are becoming the fastest growing market in the gaming industry.

Depending on the age of the user, some children are clearly unaware that when they are buying virtual cat food it actually costs real money. Clicking a button on a device feels very different from handing over hard cash and often younger users will feel that it has no value. There is often a lot of competition to keep up with their friends or others that they are playing the game with and spending in-game or real currency in order to unlock the next level or to be allowed to save a game can be incredibly tempting.

Understanding in-game currency

Many of the most popular games that children are playing have their own in-game currency, including Fortnite’s V-bux and Roblox’s popular Robux. They can come in different forms – from gems and coins to energy and strength – all of which can be used to purchase items or unlock levels. See examples of these in-game currencies below.

FAQ: What impact has the growth of esports been on young people?

Many parents will remember the news story from July 2019 about a US teen who won $3 million when he became the Fortnite world champion. Here in the UK, Jaden Ashman came in second place and won almost £1 million. This was a landmark event in the growing area of esports with over 40 million players attempting to qualify for the championships. Reports said that Jaden and his mum had often argued over his gaming hobby and apparently his school grades had suffered as a result.

However Jaden is one of a small number of young people who are now professional esports players, something which many young players will aspire to but that few will achieve. The concern is the amount of time spent trying to realise this ambition and what else can suffer on the way. Esports has seen huge growth over recent years with over 496 million eSports followers across the globe. Mainstream TV channels now host coverage of eSports events with viewers able to watch the League of Legends UK Championships on BBC iPlayer. All of this has helped eSports to become a mainstream activity.

Growing trend – gifting gaming influencers

One growing trend is for children and young people to give gaming influencers ‘money’ in the form of virtual gifts or tokens, to show their appreciation or to request a a shout out to get recognition on live streams.

In some cases, users have said that they felt pressured to send money or other gifts to their favourite influencers on a particular game or app. TikTok’s policy states that users must be 18 or older in order to be able to gift an influencer to show appreciation for the content that they are creating. A BBC report found several cases where influencers were asking their fans for gifts. They promised to give a live “shout-out” on their streams or make duets with a user in exchange for the gifts. There were also suggestions that money was being exchanged for likes/follows and even phone numbers or personal messages. Live streaming platform Twitch is another platform where “tipping” is common and users can set up a donation page for followers to tip them.

Spending real money on virtual items is not new for young people

It is important to be clear that none of this is new, children have long tried to be popular with their mates at school by having the latest trainers or collectables – things have just moved online. Spending real money online was well-established as far back as 2010, Habbo Hotel hit the headlines when it became clear that some young people were spending real money to decorate their virtual hotel room with the latest flatscreen TV or furniture. Furthermore, the virtual goods had a value and were being stolen and re-sold.

Are there any benefits of in-game spending?

Children and young people need to learn how to manage money safely and responsibly. As more purchases and transactions are made online nowadays it makes sense to use this space to help children learn good money management.

Using parental controls to set in-games spending limit

One of the real benefits of in-game spending is that most platforms and services will allow parents to exercise a certain amount of control over what their children are able to do. It is possible to limit the types of transactions as well as the amount of money that they are able to spend. Setting an upper limit or a monthly allowance means that the responsibility is passed over to the child without the risk of running up huge bills.

Encouraging children to learn how to budget

Children can learn about the importance of budgeting in order to make their allowance last until the end of the month in a relatively safe space. Many game consoles will also provide options for limiting purchases e.g. the PS4 allows parents to set a monthly spending limit and will also notify the family manager account holder whenever they fund a purchase on the PlayStation store. Similarly, on games like Fortnite, parents can require a PIN for purchases meaning that they need to authorise any spending. Here are some supporting pages and videos you can use to set your child’s spending limits on popular platforms and devices.

Using in-game purchases as incentives for rewards

Many of us get a buzz when buying something new and of course, this is the same for children and young people. One of the added benefits of in-game purchases is that microtransactions which allow players to purchase virtual goods can sometimes be very cheap so the buzz is achieved for little cost. That said, it is important to recognise the addictive nature of such transactions and several small purchases can and will add up. Parents need to have conversations with their children about the actual value of some of these things, is it worth purchasing if it won’t have any impact on the ability to play and succeed within the game?

What are the risks of in-game spending?

As mentioned earlier, one of the key challenges of in-game spending is the addictive nature of the transactions. Gaming platforms use persuasive design in order to keep people using their product and children are particularly vulnerable to these tactics.

It is crucial that parents set games and apps up properly and carefully from the outset. Many parents talk about quickly setting up a new game and not realising that their child was able to make purchases with their credit card. Requiring a password (which your child does not know) before any transaction can be made is a good way of preventing unwanted purchases from happening.

Loot Boxes: Do they encourage gambling in gaming?

Loot boxes have had a lot of attention in the media recently with the Children’s Commissioner for England calling for a change in the law back in 2019. The government announced a review of current gambling legislation at the end of 2020 in order to address this and other issues.

How do loot boxes work?

Loot boxes are an increasingly popular feature of many games that children and young people play – they can be bought using real money or in-game (virtual) currency. A loot box is a random collection of items such as a skin or a player. Those who purchase a loot box are obviously hoping that it will contain something really good although research carried out by the Children’s Commissioner found that many young people acknowledged that the chances of it containing something worthwhile were very low indeed.

It is the thrill of opening the box and the fact that it might just be that player that you really wanted that encourages more users to buy them. This has been likened to the football sticker books that were popular back in the 1980s where children would buy a packet of stickers and enjoy opening them to see if it contained the sought after player or team badge. The game is the same but now of course it has moved online and as we have already said it is a lot easier to click on a button on a screen to purchase something than actually handing over cash in a shop.

What is the UK Government doing about loot boxes?

The House of Lords Gambling Committee has recently called for randomised reward purchases (loot boxes) to be regulated under gambling laws although EA Sports who make Fifa have denied that any aspect of Fifa constitutes gambling and point parents towards parental controls which allow them to cap or prohibit spending.

Quite often the ads associated with in-game purchases can encourage younger players/users to spend with claims such as you can’t lose or a prize every time. As adults, we are aware of the reality of claims like these but to an 11-year-old it can seem like a great opportunity to get something for nothing!

The good news is that in the UK, video game ratings will warn if a game includes loot boxes or other random paid-for items. PEGI has said that publishers will also be required to provide additional information regarding the nature of these purchases.

What are gaming companies doing about loot boxes?

Gaming companies are addressing the issue themselves in different ways. Middle-earth: Shadow of War dropped micro-transactions and in-game purchases within months of launching after there were complaints about how reliant the game was on players making use of them to finish. Commentators were clear that the decision was about improving public perception of the game.
In 2020, PEGI announced that game publishers would start to provide additional information about in-game purchases of “random items” and specifically about loot boxes. In 2019, Epic Games said that “loot crates” would be replaced with in-game purchases where the user would know the “exact items that they were buying in advance”. Similarly, loot boxes have been removed from Destiny 2 with the manufacturers saying that they will still be available as drops from certain missions but they will be a reward, not something that a player has to pay for.

Gaming scams: How do kids come across these scams?

Games companies are aware of the numerous scams that are in circulation and work hard to ensure that their platforms are as safe as possible. Many scams will take place away from the official platform on a third party app or site and players should be wary of any activity that takes them away from the official app or site.

Using unofficial channels to trade items

Roblox is clear that player trading scams exist and notes that they cannot enforce deals made between players outside of their official features. There are official ways to be able to transfer items or Robux between accounts and players (and parents) should familiarise themselves with these. Roblox says that all other methods are unofficial and should be treated as suspicious. Some of the well-established guidance such as if it looks too good to be true then it probably is needs to come into play here.


Young people will regularly talk about being hacked and how someone managed to get control of their online account. The importance of strong passwords (which aren’t shared with anyone else – even friends) is important here. We also know that most of us have probably been involved in some sort of data breach at some point in time – we use our emails to sign up to so many things (particularly at the moment) and whilst your online banking is likely to be very secure – perhaps the newsletter that you signed up for or the free wifi that you took advantage of using the same email address and password might not be. The message being that we need to encourage our children to use different passwords.

Using cheat codes on false ads and forums

Games are difficult, particularly when players get to some of the higher levels and there is a market for cheat codes and tricks to enable users to power-up and move through the gameplay more quickly. These things will often be advertised and sold via message boards outside of the gaming environment – again the importance of staying within that relatively safe space is important. Quite often downloading the “cheat” which says it will help you to win will also download some malware or virus to your device. Not falling for these claims is the best approach but also having some good virus and malware protection on a device is crucial too.

Connecting with strangers: What are the real risks?

We need to move away from the very blunt don’t talk to strangers online message. Many children and young people do talk to strangers online through the games that they play and whilst yes, there is absolutely a risk in doing this – it doesn’t automatically lead to harm. What we need to do is ensure that children and young people would know what to do if they sensed that something was wrong.

Why kids are fearful of seeking help when things go wrong

If they’re playing a game and someone says something that makes them feel worried, uncomfortable or confused then they need to tell someone. Similarly, if someone shows them something or sends them something that they actually think is inappropriate or again that worries or upsets them – they need to tell someone about this too. The problem is that many children say they won’t do that for fear of being banned from the game, app or platform.

It is understandable that a parent will want to safeguard and protect their child but if they haven’t done anything wrong and are coming to tell you that there is a problem then taking away their device and not allowing them to use a particular platform may not be the best approach. Any decent game nowadays will allow users to take control and block another player who is behaving in the wrong way as well as reporting them and seeking support.

Managing what they share with virtual friends

Again, children and young people know that meeting up with strangers is a bad idea but the enticement of being offered merchandise for their favourite game can be overwhelming at times and here parents would want their children to speak to them about any offers like this.

Players need to be careful about the information that they share with other players in a game situation. It can be easy in chat situations to inadvertently ask a question about where you live or go to school when the player’s main focus is the game.

Ensuring that children know how to block or report someone who is behaving inappropriately is important and most games provide parental controls too in order to give parents a degree of oversight about what their children are doing. Other players offering merchandise can be a cause for concern – why are they doing this – what are they expecting in return? In a worst-case scenario, this could be part of a grooming process where someone is trying to befriend children or young people and gain their trust.

Whilst it is important not to scare children or make them fearful about any act of kindness online they should feel that they can approach a parent or trusted adult if the behaviour of others causes any concern.

Tips and strategies to help children manage in-game spending

Tips to help support your child when spending money on gaming platforms
Use tools to control purchases on connected devices and gaming platforms

Agreeing on a limit with your child and then using the tools provided to help them to stick to this is a sensible approach. It will give you the chance to have a conversation about risks and help them avoid making a mistake and spending more than they intended. Setting a monthly limit or allowing them to use pocket money in order to purchase game credits (often in the form of a gift card) are good approaches to take.

Talk about ways to manage what children buy in games

Discussing free versus paid-for games is important. Help them to understand that nothing is really free – although there may be no up-front cost to download a game. Users will be paying with their time (having to watch adverts in between each level) or their data (no one reads the terms and conditions but when you agree to these to be able to play you may be agreeing that your data can be shared widely.)

In-game tools and settings will allow parents to determine what sort of transactions their children can make. A discussion about loot boxes is particularly important, explaining how they work and that the likelihood of getting something worthwhile is small – yes. Videos that show a celebrity opening a box and getting something amazing exist – but think about who they are – will it be the same for the rest of us? Talk about the business model here and how it works.

Set a weekly or monthly spend on in-game purchases

Have a discussion and agree on what would be a sensible amount. Try not to let your child spend all of their money on online items and encourage them to think carefully about the value/worth of what they are spending their money on. Game consoles and games themselves offer good controls that will help parents and children set up safeguards to prevent unwanted purchases. Try to set aside some time to look at these and use them properly.

Help children to maintain their privacy whilst online gaming

Most games will have parental controls that will allow some restrictions on who players can communicate with online. These can range from not allowing communication at all to only communicating with named individuals and friends that they are connected with. Some games moderate their chat features by not allowing personal information to be shared and blocking users who use inappropriate language. Some of the more sophisticated software is able to identify and prevent adults from talking to children.

Encourage children to only use the in-game chat facilities rather than move away from the (relatively) safer space of the game into other social media platforms which may be unmonitored and where it is easier for a one-on-one chat to take place

Play games together

Research carried out after the lockdown in 2020 found that 1 in 5 parents were playing video games with their children during the lockdown. This is something that we should all try to continue – a shared experience will help foster the dialogue and discussion that is so important. If children are given the impression that we aren’t interested in what they are doing (or only interested when we think there is a problem) then they will be unlikely to offer information about what they are up to or involve us in discussions. Equally, having some understanding of the game and what it entails will help parents to give a more appropriate and balanced response if and when something goes wrong.

Talk about the importance of age ratings (PEGI ratings) on games

Have a conversation about why games have been given the age ratings that they have. PEGI has two different types of labels – one that shows the age that the game is suitable for and others that are content descriptors. Explain that this is not just about the type of content that children will encounter but also about the capabilities within the game to make purchases or to chat with other users. A common misconception is that the PEGI age ratings relate to the level of difficulty or the skills needed to complete a game – but they only refer to the age suitability.

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