Roblox's awesome growth in recent years has been long in the making, but such scale has brought a new level of scrutiny to what may now be the biggest single gaming experience in the world. There are all sorts of criticism faced by the platform, but the most serious by far relates to its overwhelmingly young audience (a February 2022 SEC filing says over 60 percent of Roblox users are under the age of 16, 55% 12 or under), and whether it does enough to protect them from bad actors and the type of content children should not be seeing. Many parents don't think it does enough. And not for the first time, some are taking action.
The Roblox Corporation is facing a class-action lawsuit in California brought by parents who accuse the company of "intentional and negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law, False Advertising Law, Consumer Legal Remedies Act, and State Consumer Protection Acts" (press release hosted on BusinessWire).
"There’s a misperception that Roblox is safe–the brand has a bit of a halo around it due to the company falsely advertising itself that way to parents," says Alexandra Walsh of Walsh Law, the firm representing the parents. "Parents who would never let their kids use TikTok don’t think twice about letting them on Roblox, even though what they encounter on Roblox can be far more harmful... Roblox has overstayed its welcome in spaces designed for kids."
But it is the specifics of the complaints themselves that may raise a few eyebrows, not only with regards to Roblox itself and the experiences recounted, but in terms of the sheer amounts of money some of these parents spend on their kids' pastime. Roblox of course only allows purchases through its own digital currency, Robux, and such things are in the first place designed to obfuscate exactly how much you're spending: but combine that with children, who don't understand money in a meaningful way until they get closer to the teenage years, and you have a bad mix.
The suit says that "Roblox fails to warn and misleads parents about the widespread inappropriate and harmful content children often encounter in the virtual world. Roblox specifically misleads parents about the efficacy of its filtering technologies and its ability to make the site safe and appropriate for children."
The complaint then gets on to children seeing "nude" avatars, "avatars engaging in intercourse, and use of sex toys, as well as virtual strip clubs." It says Roblox is "infamous for 'condo games'", a phrase describing Roblox experiences somehow designed to imply or simulate intercourse or sexual themes. The lawsuit quotes the Daily Mail describing one where "the basement was a torch-lit sex dungeon."
One of the plaintiffs, K.M., set up her then-seven-year-old son with a Roblox account in 2021. She says she subsequently spent $4,000 on the game, before discovering her child was being sent "abusive and profane messages" on the platform, including "one user ask[ing] her son to perform virtual oral sex on his avatar", another asking the boy to show them his genitals, and another calling him a racial slur.
Even worse is the complaint of the third plaintiff, Damien Uhl, a father of three whose kids have used the platform since 2007. "I thought it was a safe space," Uhl told CBS News. "There is some misrepresentation of safety. We spent a lot of money under the false pretence that this is a safe platform, and, you know, it's just a major gut check for all of us."
In 2021 his then-12-year-old daughter had formed an online relationship with another Roblox user who claimed to be a 12-year-old girl. In fact it was an adult woman and, upon searching his daughter's chat history, the father found messages of a sexual nature and that the adult had moved to emailing his daughter outside the game.
Predators are like great white sharks. They go where it's easiest to find the prey and they never stop feeding, in this case, they never stop looking for children to hurt.
"It was an adult that was manipulating and grooming my daughter," said Uhl. "The adult contacted my daughter offline and then started exchanging emails with her." Uhl got access to the emails and discovered his daughter had sent inappropriate photographs, at which point he contacted the adult directly and the police. But because they lived outside of California nothing could be done. This would suggest the other adult was not in the USA, as soliciting a minor is a federal offense, though the lawsuit is unclear. Uhl subsequently stopped his daughter accessing Roblox.
One area where this complaint does send mixed messages is the conflation of money spent on the platform with serious safety-related allegations. At times it feels like this lawsuit is about how Roblox allegedly encourages and enables reckless spending, even going into how it "obscure[s] the real price" of content through Robux. At others it is about protecting children from exposure to inappropriate content, online abuse, and predators. Here's how Walsh Law ultimately ties those two together:
"The complaint alleges that the plaintiffs—and many more parents across the country—were deceived into spending money on Roblox through the bold and inaccurate statements the company made, and that they would have found a different place to spend their money if they had known the truth."
"Predators are like great white sharks," said Anne Andrews of Andrews and Thornton, one of the law firms behind the case. "They go where it's easiest to find the prey and they never stop feeding, in this case, they never stop looking for children to hurt. The bottom line is that it is illegal to expose minors to these kinds of things, the sexual acts that are occurring on this platform while at the same time, parents are spending vast sums of money on it. It's not slowing down. These platforms are gaining more and more traction."
I contacted Roblox Corporation to ask for comment on this lawsuit, and it provided the following statement:
"We dispute the allegations and will respond in court. Roblox is committed to providing a positive and safe experience for people of all ages. We have an expert team of thousands of people dedicated to moderation and safety on Roblox 24/7, and we act swiftly to block inappropriate content or behavior when detected, including sexual content which violates our Community Standards.
"We have a number of features specifically designed to keep kids safe including filtering text chat on the platform to block inappropriate content or personal information and offering parental controls and features to limit or turn off chat. We have invested in building tools to give parents visibility into their children’s activity, including to prevent them from making unauthorized purchases."
The statement goes on to point out that Roblox Corporation is partnered with more than 20 organisations focused on child safety, and is signed-up to various industry organisations that work on best practice for keeping children safe online. It's also splitting out "17+" experiences from the wider mass of experiences.
There's no indication yet of when this suit will be heard: it was filed in August, and amended in October. Roblox has faced many lawsuits before, including class actions, and on some occasions has settled. The serious nature of these allegations, however, could make a reckoning more likely.