“Freemium” games apps face new guidelines

Free online games that pressure children into making in-app purchases “exploit” children, says the Office of Fair Trading

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Children are being pressured into buying extra in-app features in free games, the Office of Fair Trading has said.

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It spent 5 months analysing 38 children’s games and found that parents often don’t know their children have bought extras until they receive the bill.

It said that some games employed “unfair and aggressive” marketing tactics to get children to buy the extras.

Some games, it said, implied that you’d be letting people or characters down if you didn’t buy.

One of the problems OFT found was that unless parents log out immediately after downloading a game for their child, the child could purchase features without realising. “I don’t think children are always aware that when they click ‘yes’ it’s spending money,” Cavendish Elithorn, chief executive of the OFT told the BBC.

OFT laid out 8 principles it would like game app developers to adhere to, both for apps on phones and online games on Facebook, for example. These include:

  • Providing up-front information about the costs associated with a game before consumers download it
  • Ensuring that gamers are not misled to believe they must make a payment to proceed if that is not the case, for example, if they could wait for a period of time instead
  • Preventing the use of language or anything else that might exploit a child’s inexperience, for example, implying an in-game character would be disappointed if they did not spend money
  • Only taking a payment if the account holder provides “informed consent”

Cavendish Elithorn said: “This is a new and innovative industry that has grown rapidly in recent years, but it needs to ensure it is treating consumers fairly and that children are protected.”

If you are concerned that your child is spending money without you realising, you can change the settings on your phone or tablet. For iPads and iPhones, the device defaults to a 15-minute window in which you can make purchases without having to repeatedly re-enter your password. But you can disable this feature, or reduce the time.

OFT is inviting people to comment on its 8 principles by November 21.

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