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Office Of Fair Trading Not Happy With In-Game Purchases

The UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is to issue new guidelines (pdf) about in-app charges for gaming loosely aimed at children. “Is to”, which is news-speak for over-simplifying a story to make it sound like a proposal is a thing that’s definitely happening. (“Government is to chop the heads off all left-handed people” will read the headline, while the story reveals this was actually a proposal made by a window cleaner who leaned his head in during a meeting.) However, the body has put out a package of suggested guidelines for the industry, in an effort to stop publishers from ripping off customers/getting children to spend all their parents’ money. They’re hoping to put it into action in April, after consultation with grumpy publishers.

The proposals target not just mobile apps, but browser games and Facebook games – ie. all the most notorious places for the more insidious “micro-transactions”. The OFT looked at 38 games (although weirdly chose not to name any of them) and concluded that all was not well. In fact, they say that the games are likely to “breach consumer protection law.”

Having played these games, the OFT was left with a bunch of concerns:

• a lack of transparent, accurate and clear up-front information relating, for example, to costs, and other information material to a consumer’s decision about whether to play, download or sign up to a game
• misleading commercial practices, including failing to identify the practice’s commercial intent
• exploiting children’s inexperience, vulnerability and credulity, including by aggressive commercial practices
• including direct exhortations to children to buy advertised products or persuade their parents or other adults to buy advertised products for them
• payments taken from account holders without their knowledge, express authorisation or informed consent

There’s obviously greater concern that children are being manipulated by such games, especially when they can very easily repeatedly spend their parents’ money with a clicked “yes”. But they also want to see pricing made more clear for everyone, the first couple of their new principles suggesting that unavoidable subsequent costs of playing a game be made clear up front. They then want to see clearer contact information about the sellers be made available, with proper complaints procedures in place.

Their fourth suggestion is that in-game purchases should be distinct from other aspects of the game. I.e. that obfuscating what is free and what is paid for will no longer be acceptable, and what options within a game will take you to a purchase page be far more clearly stated. They also want to see games prevented from suggesting that payments are necessary to play when they really aren’t.

By the sixth suggested principle, things get to the core of the issues – aggressive and/or exploitative commercial practices. They say this means,

“Games should not include practices that are aggressive, or which otherwise have the potential to exploit a child’s inherent inexperience, vulnerability or credulity. The younger a child is, the greater the likely impact those practices will have, and the language, design, visual interface and structure of the game should take account of that.”

Speaking to the BBC, the OFT said they found games which were telling children that an animal was “ill”, and could only be helped by an in-app purchase. Which is undeniably full-blown scumbaggery. They also mention that games pretend that completing certain tasks will lead to rewards, but then withhold the reward until money is handed over. Coo, that makes me cross.

The seventh proposal seems like where they’ll certainly come unstuck in their deliberations with the people standing to lose money from these new rules. The OFT wants games aimed at children to remove instructions to “BUY MORE NOW!” when in-game funds run low, and not include easily tapped direct links to spend. Since that’s pretty much how the business model works, and since it could be argued that any non-adult certificated release could potentially be aimed at children, it seems implausible that the OFT will get there way here. Developers and publishers are likely already penning furious responses to this suggestion, and preparing their lobbying to ensure it never gets passed.

The final suggestion that no unauthorised payments be taken will be fine, though. That’s obviously in direct contravention of consumer laws. They want to make sure putting in a password to make a payment can’t then cover the next hour’s taps without your having opted into the password entry carrying over.

They are, overall, a very sensible set of suggestions and principles. But of course that’s not what makes for good policy in Madworld, and the game creators have until the 21st November to send in their “comments”. Or “lawyers”. It’ll be interesting to see what survives come next April 1st. A date that just happens to coincide with the final dissolving of the OFT into the Competition Commission, to create the new Competition And Markets Authority. It’ll be interesting to see if that buries any disappointment.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and general hero of humanity.

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