During school hours, children receive fewer mentions of the game’s premium features, though they are encouraged to log on after school to the ‘home’ version for more bonuses, for which they must pay a fee © Prodigy Education

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The company behind an online game billed to educators as a fun way for children as young as six to learn maths has been accused of bombarding students with “aggressive” advertising and manipulating children.

The game, produced by Toronto-based Prodigy Education, is said to be in use by teachers at more than 100,000 schools, mostly in North America. Aimed at six to 14-year-olds, players create a “wizard” avatar in a Pokemon-inspired virtual world in which they fight battles by answering maths challenges.

But a group of more than 20 advocacy and non-profit groups has accused Prodigy of misleading educators and parents and manipulating their young users by pushing a paid-for version of the game to children outside of school hours.

Annual membership costs $59.88 a year, or $107.40 if paid in monthly instalments.

The complaint, due to be submitted to the US Federal Trade Commission on Friday, alleges Prodigy effectively divides students into virtual haves- and have-nots based on a parent’s willingness or ability to pay.

“Children who play Prodigy without a premium membership are constantly reminded of their ‘lesser’ status,” the complaint reads. “The avatars of kids without memberships literally walk in dirt, while those of kids with memberships ride around on clouds.”

The complaint added that children with premium accounts would advance through the game more quickly, “creating the false impression they are more accomplished at math”.

Characters belonging to paid members on ‘Prodigy’ float on clouds, left, while unpaying members ‘literally walk in dirt’, critics of the game have observed © Prodigy Education

The complaint is led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an education advocacy group, which has called for parents to demand that schools stop using the platform. Backers include the Center for Humane Technology and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the technology ethics organisations.

“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,” the complaint reads.

Prodigy defended the platform.

“When a user indicates they are at school, displays about our membership benefits are reduced,” the company said. “At the same time, in our home experience, we still look to do this responsibly and sparingly so it does not detract from the free gameplay experience or educational quality.”

Prodigy said the premium accounts meant the company did not have to put the entire game behind a paywall and that only 5 per cent of its users were on paid plans. The company would not disclose how many students were using the platform but said total users, including teachers, number about 100m.

But critics pointed to the use of gameplay mechanics more commonly seen in the highly lucrative mobile games sector than in educational software.

The game frequently prompts players to “ask a parent” about upgrading, with limited time offers and “buy it now” messaging. Surprises come via treasure chests and spins of a wheel. Characters are primed to “level up” at staggered intervals.

The groups asked the FTC to investigate whether teachers were being misled over the company’s business model, suggesting that “most educators would not choose to subject children to relentless commercial pressure”.

The complaint also accused Prodigy of flouting rules on advertising to children, and called on regulators to examine the educational value of the platform.

Prodigy pointed to a self-commissioned study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University in January 2020, which observed “significantly greater achievement gains” among a subset of users.

But the same report noted that teachers “were reluctant to attribute student achievement to Prodigy”, and had called for stricter controls on how long students could spend customising their avatars.

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