Lawmakers Seek FTC Probe Of Online Math Game Over Marketing Tactics

Two lawmakers are joining advocacy groups in urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Prodigy Education dupes consumers by touting its online math game as free, but repeatedly serving young players with ads for a paid version.

“As children increasingly turn to online learning applications during the coronavirus pandemic, education technology companies have greater opportunities to take advantage of them and their families for commercial gain,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Florida) said Friday in a letter to the FTC.

“Evidence suggests that Prodigy Education deceptively markets its Prodigy Math Game ... as free, while bombarding students with advertisements that promote a premium membership, which is not free,” they add.

Prodigy, aimed at students between the ages of 6 and 14, presents players with math questions in the context of a fantasy game that involves answering questions in order to advance.

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As students play the game, they have the opportunity to “purchase” virtual items using Prodigy currency -- which can be earned through game-playing, or purchased with a membership. The Ontario-based company sells those memberships for $59.88 a year, or $107.40, if paid monthly.

Last week, more than a dozen advocacy groups -- including Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America and Public Citizen -- asked the FTC to investigate the Ontario-based company.

Markey and Castor say the game's design “appears to unfairly manipulate its young users into pressuring their parents” to purchase a membership.

“Students can easily see who has a premium membership and who does not, based on the avatars in the game,” the lawmakers write. “The avatar of a student with a premium membership floats on a cloud and has the letter 'M' by the username, while the avatar of a student without a membership walks on a dirt path.”

They are asking the FTC to launch a probe “as soon as possible.”

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