Nintendo of America is being sued over “immoral” in-game purchases formerly included in its popular mobile game, Mario Kart Tour (MKT). California father Bruce Alls filed the proposed class action on behalf of his son, who is not named in the complaint because he is a minor. It alleges Nintendo engaged in “unlawful, deceptive, and misleading trade practices” that amounted to gambling.
Specifically, the lawsuit calls out Nintendo’s use of “Spotlight Pipes,” a form of loot box the company discontinued late last year. As with other loot box lawsuits, the allegations involve users being encouraged to spend money without knowing what they’ll get. In that way, loot boxes occupy a gray area that’s at least adjacent to gambling.
The complaint also alleges Nintendo used “dark patterns” to entice higher in-app spending. That term describes deceptive user interface design strategies. Such schemes are illegal under the Washington Consumer Protection Act (WCPA) and California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL).
Alls filed the suit in Contra Costa Superior State Court in March. However, it moved out of state court, landing on the federal docket in mid-May.
Lawsuit Slams Insufficient Parental Controls
Mario Kart Tour is Nintendo’s free-to-play online spin-off of its wildly popular character-driven Mario Kart racing series.
According to the suit, Alls’ son, “N.A.,” spent more than $170 on MKT in-game transactions over a year. Transactions went through Alls’ credit card linked to the family Nintendo account.
As a result, the filing calls out Nintendo’s alleged “insufficient” parental controls, which allow minors to make unlimited purchases without explicit parental consent.
The focus, however, is the loot box-style Pipes and deceptive practices Nintendo allegedly employed to line its pocketbook.
Nintendo, the complaint alleges, sold pipes to players for real money, including minors. And despite rarely delivering anything of value, in-game ads presented the prize-giving pipes as possibly containing rare game elements or prizes.
Additionally, the game did not inform players of the odds of winning something worthwhile.
The suit claims the result is that players were “functionally gambling on the chance of winning some valuable prize.”
Nintendo removed Spotlight Pipes from MKT last fall, replacing the luck-based element with a new Spotlight Shop. Players can now purchase the drivers, karts, and gliders they want without the element of randomization.
The virtual items still cost real-world money, but players now know what they’re getting in advance.
Dark Patterns Manipulate Users to Spend Cash
Another central issue is MKT’s alleged use of dark patterns to compel players to spend more.
Nintendo’s conduct is “unfair” under the WCPA and UCL because MKT’s user interface allegedly “incorporates disclosed dark pattern design elements.”
The filing explains that dark patterns are online user interfaces that manipulate users into acting against their interests. The suit explicitly accuses MKT of including “grinding” and “pay-to-skip” tactics.
Grinding is gaming slang referring to repetitive, unenjoyable activities a game requires before the player can advance. The complaint uses the words “cumbersome and labor-intensive” and asserts that the FTC considers deems it a “coercive action.”
Grinding, the complaint adds, is often linked with other dark pattern mechanisms like pay-to-skip. These features allow a player to pay money to advance more quickly. When used alongside grinding, pay-to-skip coerces the player to pay to avoid boredom.
The result for players, says the lawsuit, is monetary loss:
These tactics are deceptive because they are designed to coerce action and manipulate users into making certain decisions in the Mario Kart Tour game against their own interests, with real monetary loss to users such as the Plaintiff and other members of the Subclass.
As a remedy, the case seeks a refund of all monies spent by the plaintiff, class, and subclass members.
It also asks for:
- An order certifying the class action
- A declaration the sales contracts between Defendant and Plaintiff, Class and Subclass are void
- All economic, monetary, actual, consequential, compensatory, and punitive damages available at law
- Plaintiff’s reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs, and other litigation expenses
- Pre and post-judgment interest, as allowable by law
- Injunctive relief as the Court deems proper
- Any further relief the Court deems equitable
This case is the latest in a series of lawsuits directed at the monetization practices of video game companies.
Last year, the FTC fined Epic Games $520 million, partly due to dark patterns in Fortnite that duped players into purchases.
This past March, Canadian Supreme Court justice Margot Fleming ruled against a claim that loot boxes constitute illegal gambling. However, she allowed the class action based on its allegations of deceptive practices.
Notably, a similar suit filed on behalf of another minor against Take Two Interactive last year went to arbitration after a partial win for TTI.
The same firm, McGuire Law, represents both plaintiffs.