The Office of Fair Trading is to investigate whether so-called “free” game apps in which players are encouraged to pay for additional content are “unfairly” pressurising children.
Such games are widely available on smartphones and tablets and allow players to make in-app purchases without needing to re-enter a password or otherwise authorise the transaction.
The news follows a series of high profile complaints children running up large bills by upgrading their player or buying virtual currency such as coins, gems or fruit.
Although some mobile platforms, for example Apple’s iPad and iPhone, allow parents to turn off in-app purchases, payers who opt not to do so can find themselves limited to playing only small portions of a game.
In the US Apple agreed to pay compensation to parents whose children ran up huge bills using free apps downloaded from its iTunes store.
The OFT’s investigation will examine whether such games “are misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair.”
The body has written to companies offering free web or app-based games, seeking information on in-game marketing to children.
It has also asked parents and consumer groups to contact it with any information they have about potentially misleading or commercially aggressive practices.
Cavendish Elithorn, OFT Senior Director for Goods and Consumer, 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.
“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.’