Online gaming may no longer be child's play

A consumer watchdog is to force the online games industry to comply with rules to prevent children feeling pressured to "pay to play". Vicky Shaw reports

Parents should make sure they protect their passwords and change them regularly
Parents should make sure they protect their passwords and change them regularly

A crackdown on the online gaming industry aims to cut the risk of money disappearing from the accounts of young players’ parents without their knowledge.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has given games producers a deadline of April 1 to comply with rules which state that costs should be shown clearly and prominently before someone begins to play, download or sign up to a game.

They should also be broken down to specify the cost of signing up as well as any “optional extras”.

In a fast-moving industry, the watchdog hopes the rules will make existing consumer protection law clearer, and tackle concerns that some firms are “exploiting children’s inexperience, vulnerability and credulity”.

They state a game has the potential to exploit a child’s inexperience by implying other players or characters within the game are relying on them to do something – and that “something” can often lead to a nasty unexpected bill for their parent.

One problem is that many parents find trying to keep up with the latest technology their youngsters are using is anything but child’s play.

I only have to look at the ease with which my three-year-old already navigates Daddy’s latest gadgets to know this. Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, says: “I’m not suggesting parents should be let off the hook for not properly protecting their phones or tablets, but part of the problem is that many kids are more tech-savvy than their parents.

“Young kids can easily pick up passwords as they sit on Mum or Dad’s knee.

Who can blame them for using the password when they’re in games that encourage them to collect treasures.” MoneySavingExpert suggests parents should make sure they protect their passwords and change them regularly to stop their children racking up big bills.

The website says it has seen “countless” reports on its forum about children – who generally have great memories – who’ve remembered passwords and used linked accounts and credit cards. For this reason, alongside the new rules firms must comply with, here are a few extra steps parents can take to protect their children – and their wallets. Further information can be found on the OFT’s website – www.oft.gov.uk.

TIPS TO STOP YOUR WALLET BEING RAIDED ONLINE:

CHECK YOUR SETTINGS

Before handing over your device to your child, check your payment option settings. If you enter your password to authorise a single payment, you may be opening a payment “window” in which your password won’t be needed for more payments to be taken. You could change the setting so that your password is needed for every purchase.

READ THE GAME DESCRIPTION

The description of the game, either in an app store or on the game’s own website, should tell you if it’s possible to make purchases within the game. The description should also tell you what the main characteristics of the game are before you download it for your child or allow them to create an account. Sift through the information to check you’re happy for your child to play.

CHECK WHETHER THERE IS A SOCIAL ELEMENT TO THE GAME

Many games let players connect with each other, through the game itself or social media platforms. If a game does this, it should be clear from its up-front description. Check what safety features there are.

GO THROUGH YOUR BILLS

Get in touch with the game provider or the platform operator if you see that money has been taken from your account without you realising. Give them the chance to put right any problem you are blaming them for. If you’re not satisfied with their response, you can contact Citizens Advice - www.adviceguide.org.uk/consumer .

HAVE A GO AT PLAYING THE GAME YOURSELF

This is the arguably the best way for you to understand what your child will see when they play the game themselves. Doing this will enable you to see first-hand if you think the content is suitable for your child and make sure there is nothing that could pressure them into making a purchase. Even if you’re happy with a game after playing it, it’s also worth bearing in mind that game content can change via updates, so you may want to check it regularly to make sure it’s still suitable for your child.

TALK TO YOUR CHILD ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCES OF GAME PLAYING

Start a conversation about the games they play and ask if there is anything they’re unhappy about.

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