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Mobile gaming for kids: stay on the right side of the law

By December 6, 2013Privacy

bates1The UK government recently shone a light on the underhand techniques some developers used to get kids and their parents to spend more on in-app purchases. Here MEF’s Senior Advisor for Policy & Initiatives, Simon Bates takes a look at the right and the wrong ways to involve kids in the app experience.

Earlier this year, the UK Office of Fair Trading investigated 38 mobile games aimed at children. It found a number of causes for concern, and not just for kids and their parents. It is likely that many of the games-makers in question were in breach of several different laws and regulations.

To help developers stay out of trouble the OFT published a number of principles that clarify how existing consumer law will be applied to games that are marketed to children. While most UK developers welcomed the opportunity to work with the government to build trust, some questioned whether the concerns raised by the OFT were valid. Regardless of the exact number of children who have been affected by unfair commercial practices, I think we can all agree that it won’t hurt for the industry to agree on a number of common sense principles. And while these laws are specific only to the UK, developers around the world can learn from the concerns the OFT has raised and its approach to tackling them.


Problem #1: Unauthorised payments

A number of parents have received credit card charges relating to their children’s games that they weren’t expecting. This has been given ample publicity in a number of press articles that have dented trust in kids apps.

On a number of occasions, parents keyed in the password on a mobile device so their child could download an app or make a one-off purchase. However, the app then allowed the child to make multiple purchases without having to ask their parent to re-submit the password.

Proposed solution

Each individual in-app payment cannot be considered authorised unless the bill-payer has given informed consent. The bill-payer’s password must therefore be submitted in advance of every payment except where they have deliberately agreed otherwise.

Problem #2: Confusing, inaccurate or missing information ahead of first play

Many apps did not provide children or parents with the information they needed to make an informed decision on whether or not to play, download or sign-up to an app. The most important information, of course, is around costs. There is a big concern around ‘drip pricing’ where additional payments are encouraged after the child starts playing the game. Some games were advertised as free but then required the player to pay to access content integral to gameplay. There was also an issue around commercial intent and privacy where games did not make it clear that they were monetising personal information harvested from players. this issue has been specially written on

Proposed solution

The OFT wants developers to provide necessary information clearly, accurately, and prominently up-front. i.e. before the consumer begins to play, download, sign up or make a purchase. First, the costs should be broken down as follows:

  • The initial cost of signing up/downloading/purchasing the game.
  • Any further costs that are unavoidable.
  • Optional extra costs.

Second, the information should make clear whether the game contains marketing, and whether personal data is collected and shared. The business behind the app should identify itself and provide contact information.

children-shotProblem #3: Messages with a commercial intent are disguised as gameplay

Some games produce messages stating or implying that, if a player wants to continue, they must first make a purchase when in fact there is a free-to-play route. This is exacerbated by the ‘loss aversion’ phenomenon, whereby players who have invested time or effort in reaching a certain point in the game are far more likely to make a payment than if they were told about the pay schedule at the outset.

Proposed solution

Where a game contains free-to-play content, messages promoting paid-for features must be clearly different to messages associated with gameplay. Also, consumers must not have to pay to complete – or derive the anticipated benefit from – as aspect of the game they have begun on a free-to-play basis. Furthermore, a game should not give the false impression that players need to make payments to continue, if that is not the case.

Problem #4: Aggressive or exploitative marketing

The OFT rightly points out that younger consumers are more vulnerable because of their inexperience and greater sense of credulity. Some games implied that children who didn’t make a purchase would be letting others down – either other players or characters in the game. Others imposed an false sense of urgency by stating that a product would only be available for a very limited time in an attempt to prompt an ill-considered decision. A few even suggested a player would be in some way inferior if he/she did not do something that prompted a payment.

Proposed solution

Present information about premium content in an objective, non-exploitative way. Here’s an example:


Also, if premium content is only available for a certain period of time make it clear when the offer expires. If there is a way of obtaining the content without making a purchase that information should be presented at the same time.

So, to recap, there are a few key principles you should abide by when developing a children’s game which features in-app purchases.

  1. Provide all the information a consumer needs to make an informed decision about whether or not to download, sign-up to or play a game for the first time. Make sure all the costs are presented clearly, both up-front charges and unavoidable payments down-the-line.
  2. Make sure premium, paid-for content is promoted in a way that sets it apart from normal gameplay. If there is a way of advancing through the game without making a payment, make gamers aware of this.
  3. Do not appeal to children’s inherent vulnerability or credulity by suggesting that bad things will happen if they don’t make a payment.
  4. Finally, do not accept a payment unless you are confident it will not come as a surprise to the bill-payer.

Children love playing games on mobile devices. I’m sure these common-sense principles will help to build trust in a business that is clearly here for the long-term.

Simon Bates is MEF’s Senior Advisor for Policy & Initiatives, you can contact him here. For more information about MEF’s App Privacy Tool, visit the website and try the service for free now.