Free iPads and smartphones games which can leave parents facing hefty bills due to their children purchasing costly in-game features are to be investigated by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) over whether children are being unfairly pressured to pay for such content.
The OFT has written to companies of free web and app-based games asking for information on their in-game marketing to children in order for the investigation to explore whether these games are misleading, commercially aggressive or unfair. One particular area of interest is ‘direct exhortations’ to children - which constitutes a strong encouragement to make a purchase, to do something that makes a purchase a necessity, or to persuade parents or other adults to buy something for them. This practice is against the law under the Consumer Protection (from unfair trading) Regulations 2008.
There have been numerous examples of children managing to spend thousands of pounds on in-game extras , in one case five-year-old Danny Kitchen from Bristol racked up a bill of £1,700 on the game Zombies vs Ninja, downloaded from iTunes, in which players can purchase weapon upgrades for as much as £69.99 a time. The money was later refunded by Apple.
In another example twice-capped England rugby union player Sam Vesty told BBC Radio 5 Live that his two sons had spent £3,200 in under three hours on the game Tiny Monsters, after 54 purchases of a “mountain of food” at £69.99 a go.
While not having estimated the size of the market the OFT said that earlier this week 80 of the 100 top-grossing Android apps were free to download but raised revenue through the purchase of in-game content. According to Ofcom, 28 per cent of children aged five to 15 had access to a smartphone, with many more having access to a parent's device.
Cavendish Elithorn, OFT Senior Director for Goods and Consumer, said: “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.
“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.”
While parents and consumer groups are also being asked to supply the OFT with information about misleading or commercially aggressive practices, the initial investigation will not cover one concern raised by many parents, the ease at which extras can be purchased if a device is already logged in to the Android or Apple stores. It will however assess whether the full cost of these games is made clear when they downloaded or accessed.
Martin Lewis, the founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, said it was "disappointing" that apps aimed at children have been allowed to charge "ridiculous amounts" for extra features.
Mr Lewis said: "When games such as My Little Pony, which are obviously targeted at young children, bait kids with £69 purchases of a 'mountain of gems', something is going wrong in the system".
The OFT expects to publish its next steps by October 2013.