What Weird Games Lurk on Your Kid’s Tablet?

Huge Kid Cesarean Birth in Hospital? Toddler Foot Doctor?,

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On Monday, Sara Schaefer was hanging out in her brother’s living room in Midlothian, Va., with her 5-year-old niece, who was playing a game on her tablet. Two days earlier, the kid had put $900 worth of toys and princess-related detritus in the family’s Amazon shopping cart, though she was unsuccessful in purchasing her haul. So her tablet use was getting a little extra scrutiny.

When Ms. Schaefer looked over at the game, she realized its levels corresponded with months of pregnancy. “I can see that the princess she’s picked out is pregnant, and you’re finding items for her. You’re making her a smoothie, you give her a massage.” That’s when she realized this was no ordinary kids’ game. “The massage part is where I’m like, this is weird. You have to rub the varicose veins away?” Ms. Schaefer said.

The game gets even more bizarre from there. When the player gets to the ninth level, she measures the baby and then is told that the baby is too big and a C-section is needed. “You have to use the scalpel, it’s not gory, but you have to use the clamps to hold the skin back,” Ms Schaefer said. “Then you get the baby, and it has a whole blond head of hair as it’s starting to peek out the incision, it’s creepy.”

Once the player sutures the C-section wound, the game ends with a skinny princess holding an enormous 14-pound baby. That’s when Ms. Schaefer discovered the official name of this cursed game: Huge Kid Cesarean Birth in Hospital.

When I saw Ms. Schaefer’s Twitter thread about the game earlier this week, I had so many questions. The first being: Why? Why would someone make this game? And should I be constantly updating the parental controls on my kids’ devices so they don’t download weird games that could scar them for life?

My efforts to reach the game’s creators were unsuccessful as of press time. But I did talk to Craig Chapple, a mobile insights strategist at SensorTower, a research firm that reports on the app market. His first response to Huge Kid Cesarean Birth in Hospital was: “This is kind of wacky.”

Mr. Chapple explained that there are a ton of strange, simple games on the app market. (He described a popular one called Slap Kings, which just involves slapping people.) They find their audience either through advertising on other games, or by using search ads — so if you’re searching “fashion” or “baby” games on an app store, their games will come up first. The companies make money on these free games either through advertisements, in-app purchases, or by advertising paid apps on free ones.

The fashion category alone — which includes the trashy makeup application games my kids love — grew 109 percent in 2020, reaching 991 million downloads, according to a SensorTower report. Ms. Schaefer does not know how her niece came to download Huge Kid Cesarean Birth in Hospital, though she speculated that her niece saw the princess-looking cartoon character icon and was drawn to it — the child can’t read fluently yet, so certainly had no idea what she was getting into.

The game is made by a company called Dress Up Mix, which has made scads of other baby care games, including one called Old Elsa Care Her Baby. Here’s the description: “Elsa is so busy that she looks like an old woman. Her face is wrinkled, her hair becomes silver white. But she has to take care of her baby. Girls, let us help Elsa take care of the baby, then help her clean her facial skin and help her dress up making her more beautiful than before.” Rude.

The C-section game is rated “mature.” I thought I had put restrictions on my children’s devices, but I was still able to download it on my younger daughter’s tablet. It turns out I hadn’t done it right, and I found that my 4-year-old had downloaded a game called Toddler Foot Doctor, which is not exactly inappropriate but involves giving a toddler foot injections to kill germs.

Obviously I need to be monitoring my children’s gameplay more closely. So I asked an expert on kids and tech for her advice about best practices. Anya Kamenetz, the author of “The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life,” said that one option is to familiarize yourself with the array of controls you can put on your kid’s devices and get granular about it. Each tablet and computer has its own unique set of parental controls, and in an article for NPR Ms. Kamenetz offers additional recommendations about apps you might use, like Family Link, FreeTime and Parental Controls to put boundaries on your child’s tech use.

“Optimally, there’s no substitute for sitting on your couch with your kid and looking at what they’ve downloaded,” Ms. Kamenetz said, but she stressed that once you have some controls and ground rules in place, this connection doesn’t have to be more than five minutes each day.

With all of the games your children play, she said, you’re looking for the risks as well as the benefits. For example, my older daughter plays Roblox, and especially in this remote year it has been a wonderful way for her to connect with her friends and also flex her creativity in designing her own apartments and homes. It has kept her occupied when we don’t have child care and her dad and I have work. The downside is that she plays a game within Roblox that has a murderous pig in it, but I believe the benefits here outweigh the harm.

The most important thing, Ms. Kamenetz said, is keeping the lines of communication open, so that if your children do see something disturbing, they feel comfortable coming to talk to you about it. After all, once they’re out in the world with their friends who might have a fully unrestricted phone at the playground, your kids are beyond any controls you might put on their devices.

For the C-section game in particular, Ms. Kamenetz said she was less concerned about the surgery warping a young child’s brain, and more concerned about the depiction of an unnaturally skinny cartoon character who drops all her baby weight the minute she gives birth to a huge kid, and that’s something she might talk to her daughters about.

Ms. Schaefer said she did not think her niece was scarred by this experience, though her brother is deleting the app. “We were all laughing and it was pretty benign fun,” she said. I didn’t delete Toddler Foot Doctor from my preschooler’s device. Maybe she’ll become a podiatrist some day, all because of this early experience in foot care. Or, maybe it’s just some silly game she will use to pass the time.

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