OFT: Children Pressured To Buy Online Games
The online games industry has been warned against pressuring children to "pay to play" in new guidelines drawn up by the Office of Fair Trading.
It follows an investigation that found some games included "potentially unfair and aggressive commercial practices to which children may be particularly susceptible".
Investigators found some games implied the player would somehow be letting other players or characters down if they did not buy content.
Other games blurred the distinction between spending virtual currency and real money, and used statements or images to encourage children to make a purchase.
The OFT said such practices were likely to breach consumer protection law, and companies in the market needed to make changes to ensure they were fully complying with their legal obligations.
Its draft proposals say payments made by children while playing games online will not be deemed authorised, and should not be taken, unless the account holder - such as a parent - has given their informed consent.
And they state that consumers should be told up front about the potential cost of playing the games and any other important information such as whether their personal details will be shared with third parties.
The OFT launched its investigation in April amid concerns users could run up substantial costs paying for content such as upgraded membership or virtual currency in forms including coins, gems or fruit.
Typically, players can access only certain areas of these games for free and must pay for higher levels or features.
OFT executive director Cavendish Elithorn said: "This is a new and innovative industry that has grown very rapidly in recent years, but it needs to ensure it is treating consumers fairly and that children are protected.
"The way the sector has worked with us since we launched our investigation is encouraging and we've already seen some positive changes to its practices.
"These principles provide a clear benchmark for how games makers should be operating. Once they are finalised, we will expect the industry to follow them, or risk enforcement action."
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, called for the guidelines to back strong enforcement.
"It's good to see that the OFT are considering action to make games include clear information on costs, and require authorisation for the account holder before children can make in-app purchases.
"The final rules must be backed up by strong enforcement action to ensure that consumers are properly protected."