As millions of satisfied players are aware, iPhone games represent one of the most promising new frontiers today, with literally tens of thousands of free or value-priced options available for wireless download on-demand today. Smash hits like Angry Birds and Where's My Water are so popular that they've even transformed into cultural phenomena, and turned millions of unsuspecting people into diehard gaming fans.
But while these applications are immensely popular with kids, families and casual or mainstream gaming enthusiasts, it's also important to note some of the challenges and drawbacks they present. With so many children turning to iPhone games as a source of entertainment, here's what parents and grandparents should know before hitting the App Store to satisfy their cravings for high-tech fun:
iPhone Apps and Games Are Bought Directly from Apple - Outside of jailbroken devices (those modified to use homebrew or unauthorized software), iPhone and iPad games are bought through iTunes or Apple's dedicated App Store. While you can purchase gift cards redeemable for currency that can be spent on applications at retail outlets, titles will be downloaded direct to mobile devices, which also include built-in access to these online storefronts. To purchase applications, you'll need an iTunes account, and Internet connection. Some larger games will also require WiFi wireless connectivity to grab, due to their increased file sizes.
Games Can Be Updated Free of Charge - Unlike most retail titles, which often begin and end at what's in the box (although some offer free patches and/or expanded downloadable content), digital diversions for Apple devices are routinely updated and iterated upon. Frequent upgrades and patches are common, and free to enjoy via the App Store, which will notify you when new downloads are available. Note that these updates shouldn't be confused with optional product expansions, add-ons and virtual goods - many products offer in-app buys and so-called "microtransactions" as well.
Email Invoices Are Sent on Purchase - To purchase game applications, you'll need to verify the email and password associated with the purchasing user account. Once confirmed, an invoice will be sent to your inbox confirming any buys made, letting you keep tabs on kids' spending. You can also access your account's purchase history on-demand as well, if you'd to review recent activity.
Apple Uses Its Own Rating System - Unlike retail games for consoles like the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360, apps for iOS devices aren't rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Instead, custom ratings are awarded by age appropriateness, e.g. 4+, 9+, 12+ or 17+, with all assignments accompanied by text that explains potential areas of controversy, including violence or salty language. Consider that many games are specifically intended for mature audiences, and feature subjects parents and grandparents may not be comfortable with. Pay attention to these ratings before buying and let kids know what content is both OK and inappropriate for them to purchase.
Parental Controls Are Available - As on set-top video game systems, parents can setup restrictions to guard against unwanted activity or controversial content. If you're shopping via the desktop version of iTunes, you can regulate access to movies, TV shows or apps by age rating or contained material. You can also go to Settings > General > Restrictions on an iPhone or iPad directly to limit content by age rating, disallow in-app purchases and access similar safety-focused functions.
Microtransactions and In-App Buys May Add Up - As alluded above, many iPhone games are offered for free and designed to be played by children of all ages. But many offset their lack of up-front costs by offering optional in-app buys or microtransactions of $0.99 or more. Kids need to be aware that accepting in-game offers, or acquiring bonus material, new characters/levels and power-ups may come with real-world charges attached. Unless you want to get a hefty phone bill, it's best to teach them about the dangers of overspending up-front, and explain that they need to get your permission before making purchases.
Some Apps Track Users' Locations - Some gaming apps offer gameplay that tracks the users' whereabouts via the iPhone's built-in GPS, and may even share them via multiplayer or social networks. Look under Settings > Location Services however, and you can turn these functions off, preventing kids from intentionally or accidentally broadcasting their present location.