Prodigy, a popular virtual, interactive math game that is used for free by millions of students, is “aggressively” marketing its premium products to children, argues a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and 21 other education and consumer protection organizations.
The company vehemently disputes that allegation, citing its mission of providing “full access to fun and engaging math learning.”
The FTC, which handles consumer complaints about unfair or deceptive business practices, can choose to investigate a complaint and may decide to sue a company if it determines it violated the law.
Prodigy has more than 100 million registered users around the world, according to a recent press release. It is designed for use by students in grades 1-8, and anyone with an internet connection can sign up to receive free access to the game, according to Prodigy’s website. Many schools integrate Prodigy into instruction.
The school-based version doesn’t include advertisements, although it encourages kids to continue playing at home. But in the home-based version, students see up to four times as many advertisements than math questions, according to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.
These ads promote the “Premium annual membership” version of the game, which can cost a little over $100 annually, if parents elect to pay month-to-month rather than buying a six-month or annual subscription.
“Prodigy unfairly manipulates children into asking their parents for a Premium membership,” argued the groups, which also include the Badass Teachers Association and the Network for Public Education. That’s, in part, because kids who are members are given access to “coveted virtual items,” including costumes and wizard spells, even when they play the game at school.
“Children can see who has the cool stuff and who doesn’t,” the groups write. That creates “two classes of students, those whose families can afford a premium membership, and those that cannot.”
Kids with Premium memberships are also allowed to advance through the game faster, which makes it appear that they are progressing faster in math.
James Bigg, a spokesman for Prodigy, countered those claims. The game does let users know about premium memberships from “time to time,” he said in an email interview, so that students and parents are aware that they exist.
But, he added, “we look to do this responsibly and sparingly so it does not detract from the free game play experience or educational quality. … We do not pressure users into upgrading.”
The company takes concerns about its practices seriously and would be “pleased” to talk to the CCFC directly, he said.
And about those extras that premium subscribers get? “It is natural for subscription-based services to offer features that are not available to users of the free service,” Bigg said. But he added, “we have intentionally ensured that all educational elements remain available for free.”
And he said that without the subscription service, the company would have to put the whole program behind a paywall, which conflicts with its mission. He also noted that Prodigy doesn’t show any outside ads, or sell or lease user information to others.
The groups argue in their complaint that Prodigy’s claim that its product “builds essential math skills” and “improves grades and test scores,” aren’t backed by evidence.
In response to that criticism, Bigg pointed to a report by Johns Hopkins University that concluded Prodigy “appears to positively relate to student achievement on standardized tests” among the sample of students in two schools that it examined.
But, as the groups noted, the Johns Hopkins report showed a “lack of remediation and actual teaching” by Prodigy, and in their view, did not “substantiate” the organization’s “efficacy claims.”
Bigg countered that the report was “overwhelmingly supportive” of Prodigy’s positive impact as a tool for teachers and parents. And he said that since the report’s publication, Prodigy has added new features, including giving students a chance to correct their mistakes, video lessons, and hints to help kids better understand questions. He also noted that 95 percent of Prodigy players use the free model.
What happens next? It is unclear. The FTC confirmed it received the letter of complaint from the CCFC and other groups, but could not comment further. FTC investigations are nonpublic so the agency generally does not comment on whether it is investigating a particular matter.