After embarking on an investigation into the mechanics and trends of 38 child-orientated mobile applications earlier this year, motivated by the startling statistic that the game-playing experiences and subsequent in-app purchases of children cost their parents on average £30 million per month ,UK watchdog, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), has published a report on its findings, in which it lays out a set of guidelines and principles for games developers. A document that features eight main rules that the OFT expects British developers to meet, the report’s main focus centres on improving the clarity and honesty of applications that can be purchased through either Apple or Google’s stores.
Mainly aimed at the proponents of the popular freemium gaming business model, the OFT’s first principle requires games to feature disclaimers that explicitly state that where a game may be downloaded for free, it may also require users to spend real money on unlocking certain elements of the game. This idea, however, already operates on Apple and it would be fairer to suggest that if the games played by children were policed more effectively by their parents, a much fewer number of people would be greeted with devastating bills. Indeed, in a recent survey carried out by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, parents admitted that they watched and regulated the in-game activities of their children a definitive 97% of the time. So it seems that lax and ‘laissez faire’ parents are actually in the minority, with tech-savvy mums and dads keeping close tabs on their iPads, tablets and Smartphones.
Another important guideline sketched out in the OFT’s report does, however, shine a light onto how children can rack up their disgruntled parents’ payments. In a scathing comment, the document accuses certain developers of ‘exploiting a child’s inherent inexperience, vulnerability and credulity’, lambasting the guilty parties for manipulating language and misleading their players. Some games, the OFT claims in its dissection of ‘child-friendly’ applications, play on the emotions and insecurities of children. Examples include suggesting, through in-game messages, that characters may become unhappy or sad unless food is bought for them (with real money) or implying that in-game popularity can only be acquired through the purchase of a new item of clothing. Implications of children being responsible for the death, sadness or lack of progression of their characters or worlds in order to encourage spending can be seen as highly unethical and when married with the relative non-understanding a small child has of the value of currency in the real world, is definitely exploitative. Certain games will also neglect to inform their players that instead of purchasing, a user can wait an allotted time for a level to be unlocked.
Although a fair plucking of the heartstrings or tapping into the human fear of rejection and unpopularity are quite often hallmarks of big business marketing campaigns, observe the classic Lynx formula of advertisements where a social pariah earns attention and affection by using deodorant, the idea that these tactics are being embraced by child-friendly games developers seems questionable. In other cases, children’s games that feature add-ons that can be purchased for such fees as £69.99 merely reflect how the mobile games market is adopting the premium prices of traditional video games, but choosing to charge during game play as opposed to before it.
Unsurprisingly, as the mobile apps market is ultimately a profit-making venture (in the same ilk as all businesses), many have spoken out against these potential enforcements. Whilst largely agreeing with the OFT’s advocation of an increased responsibility over the interests and happiness of their consumers, trade group, UKIE, has stressed that this tightening of boundaries may ‘stifle the creativity of developers or prevent the growth of the games industry.’ It can certainly be disputed as to what extent the adoption of a clearer and less underhand approach to gaming will ‘stifle creativity’ as this should not affect the complexity and inventiveness of a game but it is easy to see that for some developers, economy and ethics will make for strange bedfellows and could cause a considerable rupture in the worth of the British mobile games industry and its contribution to the overall global gaming market.
The OFT’s publication may prove to be a victory for the enraged consumer but a bad omen for the games developer that will herald the beginning of more restrictive marketing strategies and criteria.