UK Government Investigates Ethics of Freemium Games

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In-app purchases that encourage kids to buy premium content might be breaking UK laws.

We’ve all heard the horror stories – an unsuspecting parent leaves their child alone with the tablet for two minutes, and when they come back the kid has spent the family fortune on power-ups and bonus outfits. Though adults can download a free game and resolve not to spend a dime of their paycheck on premium content, it’s harder for kids to understand which levels they’re allowed to play and which levels are off-limits. This has the UK’s Office of Fair Trading concerned about the “fairness” of in-app purchases targeted at children. To that end, the Office has launched an investigation into whether children are being exploited by pressure to pay for addition content in “free to play” games.

The grounds of the investigation are the UK’s Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which protects children from “direct exhortations” to make a purchase or take action that will require a purchase. The OFT is also looking into whether freemium games are misleading or commercially aggressive, causing children or parents to buy or download the apps without understanding what they are (or more critically, are not) getting for their purchase.

The OFT has reached out to major companies behind free to play web and mobile games about the investigation. The Office also asks parents and consumer groups to let them know about any “potentially misleading or commercially aggressive practices” in freemium games. If these games are found to be using exploitative methods aimed at children, enforcement action may be taken.

“We are concerned that children and their parents could be subject to unfair pressure to purchase when they are playing games they thought we free, but which can actually run up substantial costs,” says the OFT’s Cavendish Elithorn. “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.”

The next steps of the investigation should be published by October. You can argue about where the blame lies in situations like these, but the numbers speak for themselves: currently, 80 of the 100 top-grossing Android apps are free-to-play with premium content, and 28% of UK children aged five to 15 own a smartphone (as cited by the OFT). With in-app purchases never a menu or two away from your bank account, it can be hard to keep an unknowing child away from that digital candy shop.

Source: Office of Fair Trading

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