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UK's Office of Fair Trading to clamp down on IAPs aimed at children

'Direct exhortations' to kids outlawed
UK's Office of Fair Trading to clamp down on IAPs aimed at children

Whatever your feelings on the growth of the free-to-play market, there's no question that in-app purchases in mobile games are here to stay - at least for the next few years.

However, the increasing number of freemium apps aimed at young children has attracted the attention of The Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

In fact, the OFT is so concerned about the possibility of game-playing youngsters being unlawfully manipulated into buying expensive IAPs that it's launched an investigation into the matter.

Specifically, the consumer protection agency is interested in identifying "potentially misleading or commercially aggressive practices" within freemium games, and holding the companies responsible to account.

Get 'em while they're young

According to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, it is illegal to make games which include "direct exhortations" to children.

This means that games targeted at minors cannot contain "strong encouragement to make a purchase".

Developers are also forbidden from creating mechanics that will "necessitate making a purchase", or direct kids to "persuade their parents or other adults to make a purchase for them".

Cavendish Elithorn of the OFT said: "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."

Headline grabber

The practice of putting expensive in-app purchases in child-centric games has been grabbing headlines of late, with Apple having recently proposed an in-app purchase refund system in the US to placate parents.

Indeed, it can likely be no coincidence that, almost five years after the App Store launched, only now is the OFT looking to take action.

But just what form will that action take?

"The OFT is not seeking to ban in-game purchases," Elithorn added, "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."

At this stage, the OFT cannot identify the companies that are subject to this investigation.