A federal court in Washington has dismissed all claims against German-based game developer, InnoGames, brought by a player of InnoGames’ popular strategy game, Forge of Empires.
On September 18, 2019, Plaintiff Penny Quinteros sued German game developer InnoGames and its officers (“Defendants”). Plaintiff initially brought eleven counts against Defendants, including claims for negligence, fraud, unfair and deceptive trade practices, gender discrimination and defamation.
Forge of Empires is a strategy game where players create a civilization and collect in-game resources to advance their empire through the Stone Age into the modern era. Players access the game through an online browser or via mobile apps. Forge of Empires is a free-to-play game with various premium features available for purchase (commonly referred to as a ‘freemium’ game) by using the in-game currency known as “diamonds.” Like other ‘freemium’ games, in-game purchases in Forge of Empires range from $2.99 up to $99.99, granting players diamonds or special in-game resources to better upgrade a player’s base. The game additionally appears child-friendly, bearing an age rating of 9 years old and up due to ‘infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence,’ according to the game's Apple App Store page.
On July 30, 2020, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint with nine causes of action, each arising out of Plaintiff’s interactions within Forge of Empires. In general, Plaintiff’s claims can be separated into three legal categories: tort claims, contract claims, and claims arising from statutory violations. Plaintiff alleged that Defendants created a “purposeful addictive nature of the game” and encouraged male players’ engagement through “pornographic ads.” Plaintiff further alleged she was sexually harassed and targeted both by other players and “secret” InnoGames staff moderators. However, in reporting this harassment, Plaintiff also “engaged in harassing and offensive language” directed at InnoGames support staff and moderators. Defendants highlighted excerpts of Plaintiff’s “profane and offensive” attacks on InnoGames staff, introducing several pages of arguments between Plaintiff and customer support.
In its order granting Defendants’ motion to dismiss on March 28, 2022, the Court held that Plaintiff’s tort claims were precluded by InnoGames’ Section 230 immunity under the federal Communications Decent Act ("CDA"). Section 230 of the CDA provides “quite robust” immunity to interactive computer service providers from liability arising from third-party users’ content and/or restricting player access to obscene content. Section 230 broadly defines interactive computer service as “any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server[.].” Notably, immunity does not extend to “information content providers,” or entities that are responsible for the creation of content provided by other interactive computer service providers.
The Court concluded that InnoGames enjoyed Section 230 immunity against Plaintiff’s online tort claims on two fronts. First, the Court found that Defendants were immune from Plaintiff’s claims arising from any user-generated content. Second, Defendants were immune from claims related to Plaintiff’s loss of access to the game due to Defendants’ attempt to prevent Plaintiff from publishing “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable content."
Additionally, the Court held that Plaintiff’s claims relied on “implausible speculation” in that Plaintiff failed to sufficiently allege that Defendants caused other players to harass Plaintiff and that Defendants owed Plaintiff any duty to prevent such online third-party harassment. Even in drawing inferences in favor of Plaintiff, the Court could not reasonably find that Defendants were liable for Plaintiff’s claim. Further, the Court noted that Plaintiff was aware of these dismissal grounds by having amended her complaint once before and that no additional amendments could cure the defects of Plaintiff’s claims. The Court thus dismissed all of Plaintiff’s claims with prejudice.
Section 230 immunity is a broad and powerful tool available to service providers. This case reinforces that such immunity can and does extend to game developers regarding user-generated content and restricting a player’s access, even where a player has engaged in objectionable conduct.
Penny Quinteros v. InnoGames, et al., No. C19-1402 RSM (W.D. Wash. Mar. 28, 2022)
2. Amended Complaint at 2-3, Penny Quinteros v. InnoGames, et al., No. C19-1402 RSM (W.D. Wash. June 30, 2020).
3. Order Granting Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, Penny Quinteros v. InnoGames, et al., No. C19-1402 RSM (W.D. Wash. Mar. 28, 2022).
Section 230 of the CDA provides “quite robust” immunity to interactive computer service providers from liability arising from third-party users’ content and/or restricting player access to obscene content.