Last week, I attended the Digital Kids Summit in San Francisco. The very last presentation of the conference was a panel in which Warren Buckleitner of Children’s Technology Review courageously called out the people who market and distribute mobile apps and games to kids. He wants parents to understand just how far some apps go to manipulate kids, and he wants app developers—as well as app distributors like Google Play, the App Store, and Amazon—to do something about it.
By way of an example, he showed off a horrifying little dating sim called Star Girl. It’s similar to the horrendously awful Kim Kardashian Hollywood (which Keezy reviewed last year). But Star Girl doesn’t even have a Kim Kardashian—I’m not sure if that’s bad or good, but whatever. In lieu of Kardashian, Star Girl does promise kids interaction with a Paris Hilton facsimile, but in order to get to Paris Hilton you have to spend either hours and hours or lots of real money. The hours are spent working your way up the dating status ladder, shopping, changing your clothes, and doing glamorous jobs (like being a showgirl—yes, a showgirl). You can shorten up the time factor by buying in-game currency (“diamonds”) with real money—anywhere from 99 cents to 99 bucks (yes, 99 real dollars!)
Star Girl is rated 12+ on the app store, but I’d wager that most girls who’d find this app even the least bit intriguing are more like 10 or 11. Maybe younger. Star Girl uses the freemium business model to tempt kids with fun activities like dating movie stars (Tom Cruz, anyone?), and then constantly urges them to spend real money to climb the ladder of attractiveness and fame.
I played the game for a while, and I can see how a little girl would like it. In my day, we played a board game named Mystery Date to experience the vicarious thrills involved in pretending to date years before we were ready for it. But what’s different about Star Girl and games like it is that in these games dating successfully has nothing to do with the character or personality of the person you might like to date. In Star Girl, dating is all about money.
I bought a “futbol” star about 20 bottles of beer to make him like me and then I was asked if I wanted to invite him back to my place. Once we got there, he gave me a present (a pair of knee socks). Later he called me on my cell and announced he was my boyfriend. Great.
Buckleitner talked about the skewed values Star Girl promotes, and he also talked about how unfair its business model is. Kids press a button to download apps like this for free, and then they’re constantly bombarded with tempting offers to buy stuff. Parents can minimize the financial damage by keeping their credit card numbers and passwords away from kids, but mistakes do happen. (One glance at this app’s reviews on the app stores says it all. SO much wailing and gnashing of teeth about wasted money!)
We know parents should be wary about these apps, but Buckleitner says app developers and distributors should be held responsible too.
In his talk he asked developers and app stores to apply a variant of the golden rule to these kinds of apps—to ask themselves whether they’d want their own kids to download them.
“We know Google is a smart company. So is Apple and Amazon. And many of their key leaders have children. So they should fix the problem. The logic is simple…let’s take care of the kid. Do you want your own kid to see the Star Girl app icon?” Buckleitner says. “If not, you shouldn’t sleep—knowing you are making a percentage of dollars from a store that puts app icons like this in front of a child along with child-appropriate brands and play themes. It’s like letting the fox into the henhouse.”
He’s not asking for legal restrictions, though. “For me it’s all in the labeling; and not removing the choice…If ANYONE sells to kids (which they are) they need to have label system in place that a child can understand at the point of purchase.” Kids need to be told in developmentally appropriate ways just how much time it takes and how much it costs, for instance, to buy all the junk you need to buy to get to Paris Hilton.
I agree with Warren Buckleitner. I’d also ask parents to pay closer attention to what their kids are downloading. Personally, I wouldn’t let any kid in my care play Star Girl or Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood or any of those games. Frankly, I think Grand Theft Auto has more redeeming value.