OFT investigating free games over child concerns

The UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is investigating whether children are being unfairly pressured or encouraged to buy additional content for free-to-play web and app-based games. The London-based regulator has contacted companies offering free games supported by microtransactions in a bid to gather information on in-game marketing to kids and determine whether they’re acting entirely within the law.

In particular, the OFT said it’s investigating 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”. The practice is unlawful under the Consumer Protection (from Unfair Trading) Regulations 2008.

Cavendish Elithorn, OFT senior director for goods and consumer, said: “The OFT is not seeking to ban in-game purchases, but the games 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 OFT has also called for parents and consumer groups to contact it with information about what they believe to be misleading or commercially aggressive practices in this field.

Earlier this year in the US, Apple agreed to settle a lawsuit brought against the company in 2011 by parents who said their children had racked up significant credit card charges while playing supposedly free games. The iPhone maker subsequently added a prominent “Offers In-App Purchases” warning to freemium apps on its digital marketplace.

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