All names in this article have been changed for obvious reasons.
Don is the kind of guy who really plays Clash of Clans. He studies. He strategizes. He networks. His friends sometimes playfully accuse him of going too far with the ‘freemium’, mobile, massively multiplayer strategy game. Their comments just make him smile mischievously: he knows the game is addictive. He knows his obsession is a little cartoonish. And he’s fine with that. “They’re just kidding around. The game is social. You can collaborate on attacks. I’ve made friends from out of town… even out of state through Clash of Clans. And once you’ve invested so much time into something — I’ve been playing it for two years — you just want to keep it going, because at that point you’re really reaping the benefits of the work you’ve put in.” He tells me. Don’s a pretty positive guy. A smart thirty-something from suburban California, he likes to poke fun at himself, has a healthy sense of humor. I believe him when he says there’s nothing sinister about his relationship to the game. Which makes what happened to his nephew Jimmy all the more fascinating.
“it brought him and his nephew together, gave them something to get excited about”
I asked him how his eight-year-old nephew — his sister’s son — found out about the game. “I’m not quite sure. I just remember being at a family dinner playing Clash of Clans on my phone and the kid walked up to me. ‘Uncle Don, you play too!’ And so I invited him to join the clan.” Don says it brought him and his nephew together, gave them something to get excited about. I asked him if he thought Jimmy understood the microtransactions — purchases you can make from within Clash of Clans. “Oh yeah! Absolutely. He knew he wasn’t supposed to buy anything. I know before he even played Clash of Clans the kid had already bought something against his mom’s will in another game. I think he spent like 100 bucks. She was pissed. After that he wasn’t allowed to use her iPad for a little while.”
It wasn’t until Clash of Clans that Jimmy played another game with microtransactions. Here’s how Don tells the story: “One night we’re all just sitting in the community chat room — on the left hand side of the game — and Jimmy pops in. He’s like, ‘uncle Don, uncle Don, look, I got my king!’ And I immediately knew something was wrong. So I looked at his profile and stats and was like, ‘oh my god.’ It usually takes weeks to upgrade stuff in the game, and all of a sudden he had some stronger shit than I did. So I call my sister immediately and tell her, ‘I’m pretty sure your son just ran up a huge bill on your iTunes account.’ She was incredulous. ‘He’s asleep upstairs.’ But of course he wasn’t. He was in bed with his mother’s iPad. And she had purchased something on iTunes earlier that day. So when Jimmy went to make microtransactions in Clash of Clans, it was easy. In two minutes time, he pressed ‘buy’ on the $50 package thirty-two times. He spent $1600. The only reason Jimmy stopped is because I caught him and told his mother. I think he would have kept going otherwise.”
“Jimmy was banned from using all electronics for two months”
Don’s sister immediately went upstairs and took the iPad away from Jimmy. He was banned from the game after that. I asked Don how she felt about her brother’s involvement in Jimmy’s little heist, but he dismissed the notion that she was mad at him: “my sister liked the fact that we could connect through the game. But yeah. After this transpired he wasn’t allowed to play any longer. That’s for sure. Although it’s hard to get mad at the kid. I mean he sees his uncle getting ahead in the game, and he wants to fit in. So it’s understandable. At the same time, he knows better than to spend money like that.” I asked Don if he thought Jimmy spent the money out of love for his uncle. “Oh, there’s no question about it. It was a way for him to connect with me. To feel adequate.”
In the aftermath of the disaster, Jimmy was banned from using all electronics for two months. I asked Don what he thought about microtransactions after what happened. “I get it. The game is continually being updated. It’s almost a new game every year and a half. I understand that to keep it alive you need money coming in. At the same time, it’s designed to make you spend. I don’t want to put money into Clash of Clans, but once in a while I catch myself putting five bucks into it, and I’m like ‘damn it, what the hell.’ Then I think about how I buy a beer at the bar and chug it down in five minutes. At least with the game there’s an ongoing benefit. For the money I’ve put in, I’ve gotten plenty of entertainment in return.”
I asked Don what happened to the $1600. He told me that his sister filed a complaint and was reimbursed by Apple. “They were very reasonable. She explained everything to them and they knew it wasn’t a normal every-day occurrence.”
“two months later, Don noticed his nephew’s account was still active”
And that’s where the story should have ended. But it didn’t. Two months later, Don noticed his nephew’s account was still active. And all of the stuff he bought was still there. “I called my sister and asked to borrow her iPad.’ Sure enough, the account was fully active. So I installed it on my second iPhone and I suddenly had two accounts.”
I asked Don if spending $1600 on a freemium game meant the account in question was set for life. “Oh, not at all. It barely got me to a middle ranking.” In fact it wasn’t the end of spending related to Jimmy’s account. “Those bastards got ten dollars out of me just recently for Halloween. The offer was just too good. It’s not that I use his account to play, it’s a ‘feeder’ — a place to build troops to donate to my main account and other members in my clan.” Don explained to me that this was incredibly common. “Shit dude, I know people who have their own clan and are running fifteen simultaneous accounts. There are people out there with that many different devices. Some of them even ‘farm’ for other people. You pay them and they put in the time to build up your account for you.”
As our conversation continued, I began to glimpse just how deep the world of Clash of Clans and freemium mobile games went. Don claimed he could probably sell Jimmy’s account for $1500. “I could make three grand for selling my main account. In a hearbeat. Because I’m using Jimmy’s account as a ‘feeder’, both my clan and I are doing a lot better. I can customize troops and send them right over.” I asked him if he enjoyed his role in his clan as ‘the guy with the troops.’ “Well, yeah, I run it.” He answered flatly. I told Don it sounded like he was The Godfather. “Damn right I am.”
As the interview neared its end, I asked Don if he had anything else to get off his chest. “Well, I know it’s not right for people to get screwed playing these games. On the other hand, it’s a good way to teach kids lessons about what not to do. I guess there’s a small benefit there. But yeah, parents should be careful. My sister uses a passcode now. Then again, how are you supposed to teach the value of sixteen-hundred dollars to an eight-year-old?”