If there was a pretend game in which your 6-year-old dressed up in thigh-high stiletto boots and a lace midriff, flirted with boyfriends at a bar and invited them back to her apartment to earn more "diamonds," would you let her play?
Plenty of parents have downloaded a version of the Star Girl game on their smartphones, which creates this fantasy world. In it, the player takes on the persona of an aspiring singer, actor or model, and earns points (or "diamonds") by completing various tasks, such as adding friends on Facebook -- with whom she can compete for boyfriends in the pretend nightclub -- or judging a "perfect date challenge" in which she picks which boyfriend makes the better arm candy.
The game's page on Facebook has more than a million likes.
It's not as outrageous as the plastic surgery game that was pulled from the iTunes store earlier this year, which taught players (ostensibly tween girls) how to perform liposuction and other procedures on a blond woman.
But it's also not as kid-friendly as its age-4-and-older rating implies. It's not just the blatantly sexualized images and sexist messages that are troubling. The game also allows -- in fact, encourages -- purchases of pretend items such as panties or bras to collect more fake diamonds. That means that kids are spending real money, presumably their parents', as they play.
One of the online reviews included this plea to cut back on the in-app purchase pitches: "OK, so my daughter LOVES the game but she is always asking me if she can buy some gems, so can you fix that? That would really help for a lot of moms." Another reviewer wrote that her daughter had racked up hundreds of dollars in purchases without her parents' knowledge.
The developers note in their question and answer section that there is no confirmation notice before buying an item.
Parents have been making similar complaints about other apps for years. Just last week, Apple sent an email to customers announcing some changes: "We've heard from some customers that it was too easy for their kids to make in-app purchases. As a result, we've improved controls for parents so they can better manage their children's purchases, or restrict them entirely."
The company added that it would offer refunds "in certain cases."
Noah Rosenberg, co-founder and head of product at media and development firm happyMedium, has helped develop dozens of apps, including some children's games. As a parent of young children, he said he was put off by how many aspects of the Star Girl games encourage the child to make a purchase.
"The thing that's gross about it is the in-app purchase mechanism. That is extremely stressful to children and teaches them to 'want to want,'" he said.
I emailed a query to the company credited with the app on the iPhone, the Singapore-based Oriented Games, but never got a reply. I also tried a different company credited on the Android version of the game, Animoca, based in Hong Kong. No response there, either.
Richard Harris, executive editor of App Developer Magazine, said the world of app developing can be a Wild West sort of place.
"It's no secret to all of the people in the industry that you can alias yourself as any company you wish to be, especially on the Android," he explained. He's also a parent and says that although children are intuitively very tech-savvy, they still don't understand that there is an entire machine behind the app on their device, looking to make money off of them.
When I played the version of Star Girl I downloaded on my iPhone, I was able to earn extra diamonds by watching an advertising video that had something to do with Las Vegas slots. The longer I played the part of "judge" in the fashion contest part of the game, the more normal the contestants' Playboy bunny-style outfits started to look. You start the game with three boyfriends, and you can win three gifts from each; they'll also start sending you "private" messages. (The Q&A section clarifies that these messages are robo-generated and not from real men.)
While the pink-and-purple, stylized graphics of the game may look harmless to most parents glancing at it, it takes several attempts at playing to realize the extent of the warped values it peddles.
It also has thousands of positive reviews from players, although Harris pointed out that companies can buy thousands of fake positive reviews for relatively little cost.
It was my own tween daughter who brought the app to my attention after seeing a younger cousin playing it.
"I was horrified by it," she said.
CAPRION 01: Sexy lingerie, in-app are all part of the Star Girl game.
CAPTION 02: "perfect date challenges" are all part of the Star Girl game.