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May 22, 2012

Should FTC Protect Gamers Against Unhappy Endings?

By: Steven Eichorn

Whether you or not you are an avid gamer, you have probably realized that a significant segment of the general population takes gaming quite seriously. Probably a little too seriously sometimes.

It seems that the ending to the popular game Mass Effect 3 (“ME3”), which is produced by BioWare, disappointed many devoted players so much that they filed a petition with the FTC for deceptive advertising. According to the petition, the company’s advertising convinced the players that they were able to change the game’s ending, but in reality, there were only three different endings and they were relatively similar.

Unsurprisingly, the FTC did not comment on the petition. One can only imagine the “parade of horribles” that would happen if the FTC acted on the petition. We might see petitions against any movie that was not as good as advertised, against ball clubs for not being as competitive as advertised, against colleges for not being as good as advertised, and the like.

Generally, the FTC takes the reasonable position that consumers have a certain amount of responsibility for their purchases and should understand that even legitimate advertising is meant to persuade the consumer to purchase something. (On the other hand, BioWare’s co-founder, Dr. Ray Muzyka, did take the petition seriously and released a statement that “the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey.”)

However, the same argument can be applied to some of the advertising campaigns that the FTC has criticized. For example, one could argue that a reasonable consumer should understand that Google is not going to hire him to work from home and compensate him handsomely, with absolutely no experience, and even without any job interview. Likewise, one could persuasively argue that the government is obviously not giving out grants to nearly every applicant for any random cause, just so long as you sign up for the monthly fee. Yet the FTC does oppose these forms of suggestive/misleading advertising.

One wonders if the true distinctions are the targeted audience of the advertising and the nature of consumer loss. If the targeted audience represents a more unfortunate and vulnerable segment of society, then the FTC is more likely to step in to protect the unfortunate and vulnerable consumer. If the targeted audience is more able to fend for themselves, however, the FTC is less likely to step in to protect them.

In addition, the consumer who is taken in by a misleading work-at-home scheme has, at the very least, lost valuable time and money. The consumer who plays ME3 has had a game experience for his or her money, just one that is perhaps not as exciting as he or she expected. There is a difference.

As a final note, there is a bright side to this petition. In an effort to draw attention, an online petition to redo the ending of ME3 also started a donation drive for Child’s Play, which provides video games for patients at children’s hospitals worldwide. In less than two weeks, the drive reached its goal and raised slightly more than $80,000. We are confident that even the FTC can agree that the charity drive was a good thing!