UK: Investigation by OFT into free to play games

On 12 April, the Office of Fair Trading (“OFT“) announced its investigation into free web and app based games in order to establish if game developers are “unfairly pressuring” children to pay for additional content offered within such games.

Free games downloaded onto iPads or smartphones have, in a number of instances, left parents footing a very large bill as their children purchase expensive in-game features. Identifying this problem, the OFT has commenced an investigation to establish whether game providers are misleading consumers and unfairly enticing them to pay for additional content offered within free to download games.

The OFT has contacted games developments, hosting companies and also reached out to consumer and parenting groups in order to get an insight into the effect of certain social games, including the ability and ease with which children can purchase virtual currency or “tools” that unlock game features or levels, which cost as much as £70 a time. A questionnaire has been provided for parents which probes into the specific games played by their children within the last two months and the total amount spent on in-games purchases. Responses are required by 28 June 2013. A copy of the questionnaire can be found here.

The objective of the OFT is to ascertain if the games are “misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair”. Specifically, the extent to which games include “direct exhortation” to children is being monitored. The OFT are keen to ensure that the provision of social games is in line with the Consumer Protection (from Unfair Trading) Regulations 2008 and has confirmed that enforcement action will be taken where necessary.

Platforms that supply games content have previously been the subject of claims from disgruntled parents, and in some instances, millions have been repaid where parents are able to prove their children have downloaded games without parental permission. One questions whether providers such as Apple are to blame however. It could equally be argued that it is a parent’s responsibility to monitor their own children, and the responsibility should not be shifted on to the government or games distributors.

This investigation arrives at a time when the spotlight is on the social gaming sector and its convergence with real money gaming. There was no indication by OFT however that the social games that are the subject of its investigation fall within gambling legislation, but it will be interesting to see if specific attention is afforded to casino style games. It will also be of interest to see how the OFT investigation ties in with the UK Gambling Commission’s continued monitoring of the position, and if they both conclude that consumer protection legislation adequately safeguards the consumer.

Next steps are expected to be published by the OFT in October 2013.