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Office of Fair Trading Report May Affect Mobile Games

The Office for Fair Trade issued a report threatening legal trouble for any app developer who asked for money from children in a shady way.

The United Kingdom's Office of Fair Trading recently put out a report on Children's Online Games. They were investigating ways in which online app-based games encourage kids to spend money on purchases and then proposed principles that would increase clarity about what users are getting when they buy things online. The whole report was a warning to smart-phone developers that they need to carefully use in-app-payment systems.

The bulk of the paper addressed a fear that children are coerced to buy in-app-payments without the knowledge or consent of parents or others who might actually pay the bills.

The government agency worried that children are being convinced by unclear text that somehow they will be letting other players down if they don't make an in-game purchase right away. This issue, among others, might breach consumer protection laws in the UK and could be bad for smart phone developers if they are caught and prosecuted.

The Office of Fair Trading wants to make sure all apps are compliant with their mission to make distinctions between spending in-game currency and real money so that nobody has to go to court and no children are unduly confused.

“The OFT investigation found that some games included potentially unfair and aggressive commercial practices to which children may be particularly susceptible.”

I have a bit more confidence in children than the Office of Fair Trading. I think kids who are smart enough to succeed in games will also be intelligent enough to not spend ridiculous amounts of real cash in App stores, but I am biased as a child who was raised a gamer.

It takes a lot of parenting to make the distinctions between real and virtual currency and I can understand why the OFT is asking app developers to help. With passwords, parental controls, and positive changes to development practices I think in-game microtransactions can really be a non-issue. 

I predict no fines will be levied and everyone in the world will be legally fine, but some disagree. I think mobile, app-based, console, and traditional PC games will all be safe and avoid legal trouble, but Alan Moss of Harbottle & Lewis argues that any developer in the European Union could be fined, at any time, for their microtransaction practices and they should be. I don't think it's unreasonable for games to ask me for money as long as I can decline. Feel free to disagree in comments.

Published Oct. 4th 2013

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