‘Aggressive’ in-game marketing to kids probed

The marketing techniques used by the companies behind free smartphone games are to come under scrutiny after the Office of Fair Trading launched an investigation into whether children are being pressured into buying costly add-ons.

Mobile Apps

The consumer watchdog is to probe whether developers are using “commercially aggressive” practices to encourage kids to pay for membership upgrades or virtual currency such as coins or fruit. Such in-game purchases can cost up to £70, the OFT says.

The number of free apps being downloaded for free is increasing in-line with smartphone ownership among children. More than a quarter (28 per cent) of five to 15-year-olds owned a smartphone in 2012 up from 20 per cent in 2011, according to Ofcom.

The OFT is concerned developers are exploiting the burgeoning market by including ‘direct exhortations’ – including features that make it necessary to make a purchase to continue playing the game – illegal under consumer protection regulation.

Cavendish Elithorn, the OFT’s senior director for goods and consumer affairs, says: “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.”

Companies offering free web or app-based games have been written to by the watchdog for more information on in-game marketing. It is also soliciting opinions from parent and consumer groups on whether they believe aggressive practices are being used.

The results of the probe will be published in October.

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