Tech companies making parental controls useless

13 Nov 2022

How hard is it to get Minecraft for a game console? If you’re an adult you drive to your favorite video game store, buy Minecraft, pop the cartridge in the console, and play. If you’re a kid, your experience is similar, it has one extra step: you nag your parents for a while to get the game, they drive to the store, buy it, you pop the cartridge in the console, and play. Easy.

What about getting Minecraft for the PC (Java Edition), how hard is that? If you are an adult, the process is pretty straight-forward: login with your Microsoft account, click the “Buy now” button, pay for the game, download and install. However, if you are a parent trying to buy the PC version of Minecraft for a kid, the process is much more frustrating. It looks okay from the outside, but thanks to bugs in the implementation, you have basically no choice but to lie and pretend that your kid is 18 years old and opt-out of all the parental controls in order to work around a product that doesn’t work.

The problem stems from this: the PC version of Minecraft needs to be downloaded while connected with the Microsoft account that will play the game. There are many problems with that.

First, why should I even need a Microsoft account to download the game? Why not just allow me to pay for the game and download the installer anonymously? There’s a single player mode after all, why is internet connectivity even required?

Second problem: to create an account for Microsoft, you need to have your own email address. Kids typically don’t have email addresses, and their parents are reluctant to give them one. But if parent and kid want to play Minecraft together, they need to have two different emails: you can’t have multiple profiles under the same email. And let me tell you, email providers don’t make it easy to get an email for kids. When I tried to get a Gmail for my son, all the parental consent stuff was convoluted and buggy and in the end I threw in the towel and just lied about his age so that we’d avoid those difficulties.

Same deal with Microsoft: if you want to get a Microsoft Account for a child under 13, you need to link it to a parent’s account. That worked fine for me since I already had one, but that would be a lot of extra friction for parents who don’t. Then, the purchase process actually looked okay: my son clicks “Buy now” in his account and that tells him “we’re sending an email to your parents for their consent”. In my inbox, I had an email with a big, blue button saying “Allow”. That button took me to a page to make the purchase on behalf of your child: that looks sensible and promising. But alas, there’s a bug in the form: I had to enter my address (why? My address in PayPal isn’t good enough?) and the form would not allow me to change the country. For some reason, it was locked under U.S. for me. Both my profile and my son’s clearly say “Canada” in country of residence.

And so after an hour of extremely frustrating bullshit, I gave up. I went in the parental settings, said that my son is allowed to buy whatever he wants without my consent and linked my PayPal account to his profile.

The process for getting the PC version should be exactly the same as getting a console cartridge. Kid nags their parents, the parents comes to the PC, click the “Buy now” link (no logins required), download the installer, and start the game. Instead, Microsoft opted to have a process that is more complicated and we can see that it’s more complicated, because it doesn’t work.

I’ll close with this quote from gaben:

Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem