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UK government opens investigation into free games, in-app purchases aimed at children

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In-app purchases Draw Something
In-app purchases Draw Something

The UK government has opened an investigation into whether children are being unfairly targeted in free games and with in-app purchases. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT), has said it will look into whether game developers are "potentially misleading" children or adopting "commercially aggressive practices" to pressure them into making purchases for free games on mobile devices or the web. The OFT is the UK's consumer and competition authority — similar to the FTC in the US — and has previously investigated (and approved) Facebook's $1 billion acquisition of Instagram.

The OFT has written to companies offering such games, also reaching out to parents and consumer groups. If a game is found to include triggers that necessitate making a purchase or forces a parent to buy something for a child, its creators could be infringing consumer protection laws. The investigation will look into upgraded membership statuses and virtual currency such as coins, gems or fruit.

The OFT isn't seeking to ban in-app purchases, but will take enforcement action if necessary

As part of its investigation, the OFT will launch a probe into whether game and app makers are clearly advertising the full cost of a game when it is played or downloaded. While it says it doesn't seek to ban in-app purchases, the UK watchdog says it will ensure that the industry is complying with consumer regulations and will "take enforcement action if necessary."