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Understanding mobile in-game advertising

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This week the UK's Advertising Standards Authority intervened after it emerged a mobile game rated as a PEGI-3 in the UK included an advert containing adult – if not explicit – material.

The game in question was Simon's Cat: Crunch Time, based on the animated series. The game is developed by UK developer Straw Dog studios, who aren't to blame, and very likely would have been extremely disappointed by the advert's appearance in their creation. The advert was from US company Wish, who at the time of the story's breaking had not responded to the Advertising Standards Authority, perhaps because they feel unconcerned by the remit of a regulatory body focused on the UK. The game's publisher, however, was quick to pull ads from Wish, to stop the problem repeating. In fact, they have banned Wish from advertising with them again.

So how did the ad – which was halloween themed and showed a very realistic temporary tattoo bite mark – appear?

Often mobile phone games that are free to download make money by charging players small amounts for frequently used extras. That isn't always popular with players, who want free to mean free.

As such, it's become increasingly common to have adverts appear in free games. That way, the games' creators make money from fees to the advertisers, and players can simply watch a brief trailer or see a 'pop up' static advert, instead of having to part with cash. To a certain extent, that brings peace-of-mind to parents; after all, it's perhaps better that when you hand a phone or tablet to your kids they watch a few adverts rather than spend your money without you keeping track; because it's entirely possible to spend hundreds of pound in a single day in some mobile games.

But that's only the case if the adverts are age-appropriate.

And because game developers are busy making games themselves, they don't strike up individual deals with advertising companies, or even ad agencies. Instead, they use 'in game advertising platforms'. Essentially, a game developer integrates a special technology in their game that lets ads appear, and the provider of that technology handles the flow of ads that become visible, using algorithms to ensure that the right ads meet the right players. It's important to note that those technology providers do all they can to make sure the ads that appear are suitable. But as with any emerging technology, mistakes happen. It is at least encouraging to note that the appearance of inappropriate ads in a children's game is so rare it's made the national news; and the intervention by the Advertising Standards Authority will likely put pressure on ad technology companies to tighten their controls.

But when international advertisers, games released globally, and ad technologies designed to serves millions every day, there are certainly challenges for the industry.

So what can you do? Understanding how in-game mobile ads work is the start this article hopes to provide. Beyond that, reporting any inappropriate ads to the Advertising Standards Authority – or to us, and we can pass them on – will speed up the process to deal with this problem overall. And, as ever, you can do much by trying the games yourself before giving them to your kids; if you know how much the ads appear in a game, and what they are about, you can make a more informed decision.

While it's disappointing Wish did not respond to the problem immediately, it's important to note that the game makers, ad technology companies, advertisers and the authorities do take this seriously, and cases of this happening remain extremely rare. PEGI-ratings, meanwhile, cover the content of the game; not advertisements not intended to appear in the game. And we've seen in this case how game publishers can act quickly to block the problem, and distance problematic advertisers.

Hopefully, this case will lead to steps to prevent such an incident happening again.

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Will Freeman