Feb. 19, 2021. Advocates to FTC: Prodigy Math Game Preys On Kids and Families

Groups say popular edtech platform lures schools with unsubstantiated claims,
proclaims to be “free” but cajoles kids to buy an expensive membership

David Monahan, CCFC, [email protected]

Advocates to FTC: Prodigy Math Game Preys On Kids and Families

Groups say popular edtech platform lures schools with unsubstantiated claims,
proclaims to be “free” but cajoles kids to buy an expensive membership

BOSTON, MA—February 19, 2021—Today, a coalition of 22 U.S. child advocacy and consumer groups filed a complaint urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the popular math game Prodigy for deceiving educators and parents and targeting kids with manipulative marketing.  Prodigy tells teachers and parents the game “is and always will be free,” while aggressively marketing to children a Premium membership which gives kids access to coveted virtual swag and allows them to level up faster. While memberships are only marketed to students when they play at home, the benefits of Premium membership confer while students play in school, exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities. The complaint, which was drafted by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), also details how Prodigy lacks the required substantiation for its claims that the game will boost children’s math abilities.

Prodigy is an internet-connected, interactive, gamified math platform where kids’ customized characters explore fantasy worlds and children answer math questions to “battle” opponents. Prodigy Education has attracted educators and parents by providing a free in-school version of the game and claiming it will always be free. But that version encourages kids to play at home, on a different version of the game that uses ads and persuasive design to relentlessly promote Premium membership, which costs $59.88 to $107.40 per year. CCFC found that, in a given time period playing the game, kids see up to four times more advertisements than math exercises. To make matters worse, children are repeatedly teased with virtual rewards that are only accessible if their family purchases a membership. Members show off their swag, even during school hours, creating two classes of students; bejeweled members sail around on a cloud, while non-members literally tromp in the dirt.

“It’s bad enough when commercial apps deliberately frustrate and manipulate children into desiring in-game purchases, but Prodigy’s insidious business model is creating a new form of inequality in classrooms,” said CCFC’s Executive Director, Josh Golin. “Parents are trying to make the most of the educational tools at their disposal during this unprecedented time, and many are struggling to make ends meet.  Prodigy is taking advantage of this vulnerability, and in the process, creating a clear line between the haves and have-nots in the classroom.”

Prodigy deceptively markets itself to both educators and parents as an effective educational tool, promising to “build essential math skills” and “improve grades and test scores.” It says it has proof—and points to a Johns Hopkins University report. But that report noted a “lack of remediation and actual teaching provided by Prodigy,” and did not substantiate Prodigy Education’s claims to boost children’s math ability significantly.

“Prodigy may keep children quiet and happy while teachers or parents are busy, but it doesn’t teach them math,” said Faith Boninger, Ph.D. of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at the National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado Boulder. “Research indicates that kids must spend hours in the game to improve their math achievement scores by just one point. That might not be so terrible, perhaps, but during those hours they endure emotionally abusive marketing until they convince their parents to shell out money for a membership. Under a pretense of teaching math, Prodigy is using schools to access and manipulate a lucrative child market.”

With the help of this sleight of hand, Prodigy reports that the game is now played by millions of students in over 90,000 schools across the United States. Just last month, Prodigy Education announced that it had secured funding of $125 million—one of the largest investments in edtech history.

Criscillia Benford, Ph.D., co-author of Sensory Metrics of Neuromechanical Trust and a member of the Board of Directors of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said “Like sugary cereal, Prodigy is designed to attract kids. It is a highly-engaging video game filled with revenue-generating devices masquerading as tools for math practice. Prodigy capitalizes on the desires of caregivers and educators to support kids’ achievement, and despicably monetizes kids’ desire to feel admired and included by their peers. All kids deserve to practice math without enduring virtual distractions designed to shame or otherwise prod them into nagging their caregivers for memberships priced high enough to break many family budgets.”

CCFC has also launched an action page where parents can urge their own schools to pull the plug on Prodigy.

Groups signing on to the complaint to the FTC are: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Badass Teachers Association, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Center for Digital Democracy, Center for Humane Technology, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Federation of California, Defending the Early Years, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Media Education Foundation, Network for Public Education, Obligation, Inc., Open MIC (Open Media and Information Companies Initiative), Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Parents Television Council, ParentsTogether Foundation, Peace Educators Allied for Children Everywhere (P.E.A.C.E.), Public Citizen, the Story of Stuff Project, TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Childhood Entertainment), and U.S. PIRG Education Fund.