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UK government investigating free-to-play games, in-app purchases for misleading tactics

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The UK's Office of Fair Trading says it launched an investigation into free-to-play web and mobile games to determine whether children who play them are being "unfairly pressured or encouraged to pay for additional content" through in-app purchases.

"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," Cavendish Elithorn, senior director for goods and consumer at the OFT, said in a release. In popular mobile games like Real Racing 3, Smurfs Village and Fieldrunners 2, in-app purchases for coins and other consumable items can top $100 or more.

The OFT says it has reached out to publishers of free web and app-based games seeking information on their in-game marketing to children. The government department says it has also asked parents and consumer groups about "potentially misleading or commercially aggressive practices they are aware of" in games.

The investigation aims to determine whether such games are unfair, specifically whether they include "direct exhortations" to children. That's defined as "a strong encouragement to make a purchase, or to do something that will necessitate making a purchase, or to persuade their parents or other adults to make a purchase for them."

The Office of Fair Trading is a consumer and competition government authority that aims to "make markets work well for consumers" in the UK.

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