UK investigates unfair trade in children's game apps

Children shouldn't be pressured to make in-game purchases, the OFT said

The U.K. Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has launched an investigation into free children's game apps to explore whether these games are misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair.

Children could be unfairly pressured by Web and app-based game makers to pay for additional content in games, the OFT said in a news release on Friday.

Typically, players can only access parts of free games and are offered new levels or features for money. Paid upgrades can include faster game play, virtual currency like coins, gems or fruit, or upgraded memberships, the consumer and competition authority said.

As part of the investigation, the OFT said it has written to companies offering free Web or app-based games, seeking information on in-game marketing to children. Parties that are being investigated were not named. The OFT said it would ask information from key players in the sector, including games developers and games hosting services.

The authority is also asking parents and consumer groups to contact it with information about "potentially misleading or commercially aggressive practices" that they are aware of in relation to the games.

In particular, the OFT will look into whether these games include a strong encouragement to make a purchase or to do something that will pressure children to make a purchase. These "direct exhortations" are unlawful under the Consumer Protection Regulations, OFT said.

In its investigation, the OFT will consider if the game makers make clear what extra costs can be involved when the game is downloaded and accessed. Prices should be transparently advertised, it 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 authority said.

OFT expects the next step in the investigation to be published by October 2013.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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