The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is investigating freemium web-based games and apps aimed at children to determine whether they are misleading, unfair and entirely lawful.
Speaking to a number of currently unnamed companies, the OFT is undertaking a major new investigation to determine whether freemium and free-to-play games are putting undue pressure on children and their parents to fork out for additional content.
“As part of the investigation, the OFT has written to companies offering free web or app-based games, seeking information on in-game marketing to children,” said the OFT in a statement.
“In particular, the OFT is looking into whether these games include ‘direct exhortations’ to children – a strong encouragement to make a purchase, or to do something that will necessitate making a purchase, or to persuade their parents or other adults to make a purchase for them.”
Many of the apps and games currently offered for free require or ask players to pay for in-game content allowing them to progress through levels more quickly or unlock further levels.
Part of the OFT’s investigation will include determining whether these games are “misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair.” What the OFT calls a “direct exhortation” is something that could include the direct “Buy Now” option for freemium content offered by free-to-play games, which could be interpreted as “unlawful under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act of 2008.”
Although the OFT has the power to remove freemium elements from games if they are found to be in violation of the law, it has also said it “is not seeking to ban in-game purchases.”
“We are concerned that children and their parents could be subject to unfair pressure to purchase when they are playing games they thought were free, but which can actually run up substantial costs,” said Cavendish Elithorn, Senior Director for Goods and Consumer at the OFT. “The game industry must ensure it is complying with the relevant regulations so that children are protected. We are speaking to the industry and will take enforcement action if necessary.”
The investigation has been the result of several media reports telling of children accidently running up huge bills from in-app content, including five-year-old Danny Kitchen who racked up a £1,700 iTunes fee playing the free Zombies v Ninjas game on his parents’ iPad.