Walmart winds down Roblox play as metaverse lands in privacy crosshairs
Peter Adams, Marketing Dive
One of the top complaints among parents: Roblox fails to protect their children's digital assets.
5/16/23: The Children’s Advertising Review Unit has determined that Roblox violated its Ad Guidelines by failing to adequately disclose to children when advertising is present within experiences and videos on Roblox; and by failing to ensure that social media influencers clearly and conspicuously disclose their material connections to Roblox in a manner that is understandable to children. CARU recommended that Roblox ensure that proper disclosures are implemented. Roblox disagreed with some of CARU’s findings and recommendations but stated it would comply with CARU’s recommendations as they pertain to influencers.
11/8/22: Roblox has quietly removed its ban on ads directed at kids under the age of 13. Our original article follows.
As part of an investigation into covert and deceptive advertising on the popular online gaming and creation platform Roblox, TINA.org filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FTC seeking “all consumer complaints submitted to the FTC regarding Roblox.” In response, the FTC said it had received nearly 1,300 complaints but only provided TINA.org with a sampling of the 200 most recent complaints. TINA.org appealed the decision to provide only a limited sampling in order to gain access to all 1,291 of the complaints, citing, among other things, an inability to discern whether the subject matter and quantity of complaints has changed over time. Meanwhile, here are some of the trends TINA.org has identified from the most recent complaints.
Failing to protect children’s digital assets
On its website, Roblox assures parents that its platform is “a safe and fun space for players,” which includes more than 25 million children who use Roblox on a daily basis. The company even has a Trust & Safety Advisory Board, which works to promote a safe and “family-friendly” environment. But in complaints to the FTC, many parents accuse Roblox of failing to protect their children in a variety of ways, including failing to protect their digital assets.
One parent said their 12-year-old daughter was “heartbroken over her digital loss” after hackers gained access to her Roblox account and stole valuable items including rare and legendary pets from her inventory in Adopt Me! a pet-raising game and the most popular game on Roblox of all time with more than 28 billion visits. Another parent of a “heartbroken” child worried that their 7-year-old son’s suspension from Roblox – which the parent said was handed down in response to a dispute between them and Roblox over a purchase of Robux, the platform’s virtual currency – would “cause him to lose all of his saved data.” Yet another parent said Roblox permanently deleted their son’s account “for having adult/sexual content in one of the games he created,” when in reality, the content “was hidden inside of a module he acquired from within the game itself, and he was unaware that the explicit content was in there.”
This account had accumulated a lot of items, most of which were bought with actual money. When I asked the roblox representative to show me the proof of their reasoning for termination of the account, they refused and simply stated that the account is deleted and nothing can be done. I feel that because money (including gifts cards given as Christmas gifts) was spent on this account, proof should be provided, otherwise it just feels like we’re being ripped off by the gaming platform.
Another parent who claimed their son’s account was “unfairly deleted” wrote to the FTC:
After 7 years as a member, my son’s … account was unfairly deleted by Roblox on Jan 29, wasting years of effort & hundreds of $ (for in-app purchases, toys & coding classes). On Xmas morning the huge Santa paws he hatched in the pet simulator lottery purchase vanished, and after a lot of his tears, multiple support tickets were submitted to no avail. (We asked that either the item be reinstated, or the $20 for the purchase be refunded, but neither occur[r]ed.)
One more parent complained to the FTC:
My daughter opened an account with Roblox about 5 or 6 years ago. We have spent close to $2,000 on upgrades, pets, etc. Recently, we had disputed a $10 charge we didn’t recognize and her entire account was shut down because of it. No care or concern regarding the years and years of time she had spent building houses, acquiring assets, and apparently you are not allowed to question any charges for fear the entire account will be completely erased from existence.
This week, TINA.org filed a complaint with the FTC concerning Roblox and the manipulation and exploitation of minors in its closed platform A virtual space in which users or avatars can play games, explore and purchase digital items, among other things. In a closed platform metaverse, users can only interact with other users in that metaverse.. In its complaint letter, TINA.org referenced consumer complaints filed against Roblox with the FTC :
[U]nlike other metaverse platforms, Roblox virtual items and its currency are not created or secured using blockchain technology, which means Roblox objects are not NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and Robux is not a cryptocurrency. As a result, when a Roblox user loses their account for whatever reason, they also lose every asset that was in the account, an occurrence that appears to happen with some frequency according to complaints filed with the FTC.
On Roblox, digital items can be acquired in multiple ways. While there are official channels where items are bought and sold, there’s also a thriving unofficial market that Roblox is reportedly turning a blind eye to at the expense of children who are likely unaware of the dangers of black markets.
Other trends in consumer complaints against Roblox include:
Not being able to talk to a real person
Gift cards that don’t work
These are just the people who have gone to the trouble of filing a complaint. There are likely many more consumers who have had similar experiences but haven’t reported it to the FTC, for any number of reasons. They may not have the time to fill out the forms — or know the option to file a complaint even exists — or they may be embarrassed to admit they got scammed. So while 1,300 complaints may seem like a small number compared to the millions of people who use Roblox every day, it’s more than likely that far more than 1,300 consumers have suffered.
Read more about TINA.org’s Roblox investigation and complaint here.
Peter Adams, Marketing Dive
Will it enforce them this time?
TINA.org, together with other consumer groups, calls for immediate audit of Walmart Universe of Play.