To read this content please select one of the options below:

Paying to play: an economic experiment examining children’s avatar preferences and their willingness to pay for them

Amanda Brooke Jennings (School of Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)
Madeline Messer (Charter School of Wilmington, Wilmington, DE, USA)

Young Consumers

ISSN: 1747-3616

Article publication date: 16 August 2019

Issue publication date: 19 August 2019




The purpose of this study is a formal experimental economics test of results found in a study designed and executed by a 12-year-old who was concerned about what she perceived to be bias in gaming applications (apps) that provided male avatar characters for no cost but required in-app purchases to access female characters. The present study was designed to test empirically whether children have a revealed preference for same-gendered characters and whether such preferences are dependent on the cost of the characters.


Children from 6 to 16 years of age were recruited to participate in a framed field economics experiment in which they would earn actual money and be given opportunities to spend it on in-game avatars they could then use to continue to play. Additionally, a survey gathered data on participants’ stated preferences and experiences playing game apps on mobile phones.


Children do prefer to play a character of the same gender; however, they are more likely to remain the default character if choosing a different character costs money. When asked to say why they picked their character, children report most often that it is based on either the characters’ appearance or gender, followed by perceived character abilities, liking the character and the cost of a character. A vast majority (90 per cent) of children felt both male and female characters should be free.

Research limitations/implications

This research was limited because the experiment simulated in-app purchases but could not offer the permanence of real-world in-app purchases. Players in the experiment could not “keep” the character if they chose to pay for it. The authors adjusted for this by making the cost to change character gender much lower than it would be in the game (25 cents in the study vs approximately $10 in the app). Future research could explore ways to make in-app purchases during the study permanent for players to test if the permanence of the purchase results in greater willingness to pay to switch character gender.

Practical implications

This research has practical implications for video game designers. As both male and female players prefer to play with characters of the same gender, and having a cost to play a character reduces switching behavior, it is possible that having a cost for female characters reduces the popularity of the game with female players. This is especially relevant for endless running games as these games are preferred more by women than men. By making female characters free, default character and developers may increase the popularity of these games with female players.


This study adds to the body of literature about gender and video game preferences because prior studies relied solely on stated preferences about characters (using surveys and self-reported behaviors) and not on revealed preferences (observed behaviors). Additionally, this study examines character gender preferences in a casual game, while most prior studies have examine preferences in massively multiplayer online role-playing games.



The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Maik Kecinski, Julia Parker, Francesca Piccone, Kaitlynn Ritchie and Maddi Valinski in this research.


Jennings, A.B. and Messer, M. (2019), "Paying to play: an economic experiment examining children’s avatar preferences and their willingness to pay for them", Young Consumers, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 219-235.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

Related articles