By Daniel Hunter

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has launched an investigation into whether children are being unfairly pressured or encouraged to pay for additional content in 'free' web and app-based games, including upgraded membership or virtual currency such as coins, gems or fruit.

Typically, players can access only portions of these games for free, with new levels or features, such as faster game play, costing money.

As part of the investigation, the OFT has written to companies offering free web or app-based games, seeking information on in-game marketing to children. The OFT is also asking for parents and consumer groups to contact it with information about potentially misleading or commercially aggressive practices they are aware of in relation to these games.

The OFT investigation is exploring whether these games are misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair. In particular, the OFT is looking into whether these games include 'direct exhortations' to children - 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. This is unlawful under the Consumer Protection (from Unfair Trading) Regulations 2008.

As part of the investigation, the OFT will also consider whether the full cost of some of these games is made clear when they are downloaded or accessed, potentially leading to children and parents to make decisions they may not have made if prices were more transparently advertised at the start of the purchasing process.

"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, OFT Senior Director for Goods and Consumer, said.

"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."