Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), a senior member of the House Energy Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, has writing a letter to the Federal Trade Commission urging it to investigate the practice of monetizing a free game through in-app purchases on mobile devices. Markey cited a Washington Post story from earlier this week  as the cause for his concern. The story highlighted the story of a child who had unknowingly spent $1400 in real money buying Smurfberries virtual currency in the Capcom iOS game Smurfs’ Village.

“I am concerned about how these applications are being promoted and delivered to consumers, particularly with respect to children, who are unlikely to understand the ramifications of in-app purchases, wrote Markey in his letter. “Accordingly, I am interested in any actions the Commission has taken to investigate this issue. I also encourage the Commission to pursue measures to provide consumers with additional information about the marketing and delivery of these applications. I request that the Commission assess current industry activities in this area to determine whether they constitute unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

The allegation that Smurfs’ Village monetizes by confusing children into spending their exorbitant sums of their parents’ money on Smurfberries has dogged the app since its launch, prompting Capcom to actually put a warning into the game which is meant to remind players that they’re about to spend real money before making any Smurfberries purchase. Much of the runaway spending from children is the result of a limitation in the way iOS handles in-app transactions. After parents enter the passwords that let children buy Smurfberries directly, the child can continue to make purchases for the next fifteen minutes without requiring the password to be entered again.

Smurfs’ Village does say the game is for players ages 4 and up, but it should be noted that Capcom has generally presented the game as a general audience tie-in to the upcoming live-action Smurfs film, which the MPAA has not yet rated, rather than strictly as a game for children. The Post story characterizes most of the freemium games it covers, including Pocket Gem’s Tap Zoo, as games primarily intended for children. The content of Pocket Gems’ games is comparable to that of Zynga’s social games on Facebook, which are typically played by adults.

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