An online game, entitled Bin Weevils, accessed through www.binweevils.com. As part of gameplay, players could partake in a range of free activities involving their avatar including decorating its habitat, which would be given a 'coolness rating'. Some activities constituted mini-games, through which the 'soft' in-game currency 'Mulch' could be collected and, occasionally, the 'hard' currency 'Dosh'. Both currencies could be exchanged for decorative items.
Although it was possible to play the game without spending real money or sharing the game, certain activities required participation in a paid-membership system, which entitled members to additional benefits, or spending in-game currency which could almost solely be obtained by purchasing it with real money or receiving it as a membership benefit.
The game was navigated using a map of the gameworld, which included a 'Bin Pet' area. On attempting to purchase a Bin Pet from this area players were shown a message stating "BIN TYCOON MEMBERS ONLY! ADOPT THE PERFECT BIN PET! JOIN NOW," and by clicking on this message were brought to a page describing the benefits of the membership scheme, through which payment plans could be purchased. Similar messages appeared when trying to access other game features, including the 'Bin Pet Gym'. In the 'Dosh ATM' area, a message was displayed that stated "What Can You Spend Dosh On? EXCLUSIVE NEST ITEMS BRILLIANT BUNDLES BIN-CREDIBLE BIN BOTS AMAZING HATS How do I get Dosh? BIN TYCOON Become a Member DOSH Top Up" and, depending on which part of the message was interacted with, directed players either to the membership page or to a page through which 'Dosh' could be purchased directly. Other messages directing players to these pages appeared when attempting to buy items for which players did not have enough Dosh.
One of the mini-games through which Mulch could be collected was a daily 'Mulch Dig'. This game required players to uncover items on a beach through using a metal-detector and spade, and gave a limited number of opportunities to dig. Once these opportunities were used, players received a message stating "GAME OVER You won 100 Mulch! Play again tomorrow! Bin Tycoons get more spades to dig for more Mulch! BIN TYCOON Become a Member", which directed them to the membership page. All these messages could be dismissed by clicking an 'X' in the top right-hand corner.
The Competition and Markets Authority, who believed that the game was targeted at children and contained a direct exhortation to buy a membership package, challenged whether the ad breached the Code.
55 Pixels Ltd t/a Bin Weevils stated that the website was free to play, but that there was a membership option in the form of a monthly subscription. They said that 90% of the site's content was free to play and that 90% of their audience were non-paying players. Bin Weevils stated that the membership gave paying players access to exclusive content, games and areas, as well as a monthly payment of the in-game currency 'Dosh', which could be used to purchase premium virtual goods. They stated that subscriptions were available through credit/debit cards, PayPal or games cards available in shops, and that it was not possible to accidentally purchase a membership. They stated that the membership page made these packages clear. Bin Weevils also stated that as a minor feature of the game customers could purchase a 'Dosh Top-Up' from the membership page, either by credit/debit card or PayPal. They explained that Dosh and membership purchases did not take place within the game and that customers were taken to a separate secure page in order to make a purchase. They said they did this to be clear that the purchases were separate from in-game activities.
Bin Weevils stated that during a player's journey they would come across 'barriers'. These would occur if a player tried to do something restricted, such as entering an area they weren't able to access, or purchase something for which they did not have enough virtual currency. At these points, players were provided with information as to why they could not gain access. Bin Weevils stated that these interfaces did not appear spontaneously, but only when a player attempted to carry out a restricted action, usually relating to a paid membership. They noted that the interfaces were transparent and clear to the player, and that each interface could be closed using the 'X' in the corner, which was common to all in-game messages and which they considered players would be familiar with. They stated that the information on these interfaces related only to the action the player had taken and the buttons, if clicked, would take the player to a membership page separate from the game. This page would then clearly detail the real money payment packages alongside further information about membership benefits.
BinWeevils stated that they benchmarked their approach against other leading children's massively multiplayer online games, and provided screenshots from other games using a range of approaches. They stated that they did not realise their approach was potentially in breach of the CAP Code and that since receiving the complaint they had revised the ads to state "About Membership".
The ASA welcomed 55 Pixels' willingness to amend their advertising in light of the concerns raised. We considered that the game would have particular appeal to, and was targeted at, young children. We understood that much of the game was available to play for free and that membership was not required in order to undertake many in-game activities. We noted that paid membership brought benefits that provided new resources, such as Dosh and more space in the player's game area. We understood that when trying to access an area or action that was member-only a message would be displayed explaining this to the player, sometimes reiterating the action that was to be carried out (such as "ADOPT THE PERFECT BIN PET") or how the experience would vary for a member, and stating either "BIN TYCOON Become a Member" or "JOIN NOW". A means of closing the message with an 'x' button in the corner was also provided. We noted that both the reiteration of the player's action and the statement regarding joining the membership scheme were phrased as commands to purchase a membership subscription. We considered that these statements were significantly more prominent within the message boxes than the option to close the message, the 'x' being much smaller than the invitation and out of the way of the main text, and also noted that no statement explaining that players could return to gameplay without a subscription was given.
In the 'Dosh ATM' area, several benefits of purchasing Dosh were outlined, alongside the same membership message as in the message boxes and the additional statement "DOSH Top Up". We considered that this latter statement constituted a command to purchase the currency. While we acknowledged that the statement in this context linked players to the mechanism for buying Dosh and, under the heading "How do I get Dosh?", could be understood as an explanation of how to purchase, we considered that the imperative phrasing of 'Top Up' was not necessary to explain how to purchase and that it therefore went further than a straightforward description of the mechanism. In light of these elements, we concluded that the game presented children with direct exhortations to purchase membership subscriptions and in-game currency and therefore breached the Code.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society.
(Social responsibility) and 5.4,
must not include a direct exhortation to children to buy an advertised product or persuade their parents or other adults to buy an advertised product for them.
Marketing communications that contain a direct exhortation to buy a product via a direct-response mechanism must not be directly targeted at children. Direct-response mechanisms are those that allow consumers to place orders without face-to-face contact with the marketer.
(Direct exhortation and parental authority).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained about. We told 55 Pixels Ltd to ensure that future ads did not state "Become a Member", "JOIN NOW" or contain other direct exhortations to purchase membership subscriptions or in-game currency.