(NewsNation) — The online gaming platform Roblox has come under fire for its advertising practices —particularly toward children — which critics say blur the lines between content and commercials.
The platform, which has been downloaded millions of times, also has been the subject of more than 1,000 complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, NewsNation learned. Those concerns cite issues like lack of assistance, deceptive advertising practices and failure to protect children on multiple levels.
San Francisco Bay Better Business Bureau CEO Lori Wilson says they’ve received 994 complaints against Roblox in the past three years.
“We forwarded the complaints to Roblox and Roblox did respond to the complaints that we forwarded…” Wilson said. “So often, in an industry that’s not regulated, consumers don’t know where to go. They don’t know how to get the money back.”
For all its ingenuity, Roblox has “shirked” its truth in advertising responsibilities, according to a 2022 FTC complaint filed by the instigative non-profit Truth in Advertising.
“The distinction between marketing and organic content is almost always missing,” the complaint read.
Young gamers, for example, might not recognize advertisements embedded into gaming platforms like Roblox because of how users interact with games that exist in Roblox worlds such as Walmartland and Nikeland.
“We found that it was not only Roblox itself but the brands that are building advergames…that both of them are culpable in these instances,” Truth in Advertising Executive Director and Co-Founder Bonnie Patten said.
Fans of Roblox say it inspires creativity, collaboration and — potentially — brand deals. The company is worth more than $24 billion and many children believe they, too, can make a profit by creating and marketing their games.
Most of them won’t, though. Roblox owns anything created on the platform. Gamers do get paid for their creations — with an in-game currency known as “Robux.”
The platform pays developers and creators about 29 cents per $1 spent. Gamers also get 30% of every transaction. Roblox takes the rest.
Robux can be spent on things like clothes and accessories for avatars or players can use the game money to unlock special access and rewards.
Those features, however, are often hiding advertisements for big company merchandise, said psychologist, author and child advocate Susan Linn. Her most recent book, “Who’s Raising the Kids?: Big Tech, Big Business, and the Lives of Children” was published last year.
“The advertising and marketing that children encounter in games like Roblox is advertising on steroids,” Linn told NewsNation. “It’s hard to identify. It’s phenomenally seductive.”
Gaming platforms like Roblox play to children’s strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, making them targets for constant marketing and potential exploitation, Linn said.
According to Linn, the tech industry uses celebrities and beloved icons to target children. In Nikeland, for example, users can interact with an avatar named after and designed to look like L.A. Lakers forward LeBron James.
“Kids interacting with this LeBron James avatar, even if they know that it’s not really Lebron James, they believe that LeBron James is sanctioning everything that this avatar does,” Linn said. “That is deceptive advertising because young children don’t have the capacity to differentiate between an ad and content when the content is blurred.”
Neither Nike nor LeBron James’ representatives responded to NewsNation’s request for an interview.
Nike did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.
Roblox issued NewsNation the following statement:
“Roblox is deeply committed to ensuring our user and developer communities have a positive and safe experience including having parental and spending controls, strict policies and safety systems that help us maintain a supportive and fair platform and virtual economy.
We take swift action against anyone who breaches our Community Standards, which do not allow inappropriate content and behavior, including endangering or targeting children in any way.” – Roblox spokesperson.”Roblox
Walmart also responded with a previously issued statement saying it will continue to market Roblox merchandise.
“In December 2022, Walmart was approved to join CARU’s COPPA Safe Harbor Program after demonstrating that Universe of Play, a new immersive Roblox experience, complies with the stringent requirements of COPPA and CARU’s Guidelines,” the statement read.Walmart
The child advocacy group Fairplay says online gaming companies like Roblox allow unethical marketing practices on the platform.
“We do think that the platforms and advertisers bear responsibility here,” Fairplay policy counsel Haley Hinkle said.
Before online media, the FCC had rules about advertising to children that clearly stated the difference between ads, entertainment and informative content.
“We have not really successfully managed to apply those rules all the time to the internet,” Hinkle said.
Some regulations do exist through the FTC such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or rules surrounding unfair and deceptive practices. Having policies in place to guide marketing toward children is especially important since children aren’t able to understand advertising the same way as adults, Hinkle said.
Seventy-five percent of kids ages 9-12 in the U.S. regularly create or play games on Roblox, which uses avatars to represent players. The company markets itself as “a global platform which brings people together through play.” Within its online universe, players can explore different worlds, build and play games and chat with one another.
“Children are not adults in teeny, tiny bodies,” she said. “They don’t have the same capacity to reason or to anticipate consequences and so they are so much more vulnerable to online advertising.”